SAN DIEGO – Once Kentucky, those gritty underdogs, siphoned off the day’s 8-vs.-1 karma, there almost didn’t seem to be a point to tee it up here Sunday evening.
But who’d have presumed that they drained the tank?
In an NCAA tournament happily spiced with charming upsets, Gonzaga’s bid to join the party lasted just about as long as it took the Arizona Wildcats to scoop up a turnover and turn it into a layup.
Which the top-seeded Cats did on an endless loop in the defining moments of an 84-61 evisceration of the Bulldogs.
And so a fifth straight Zags season ends in that ho-hum-if-you-win-one- damned-if-you-don’t-win- two tower prison they’ve been consigned to by their many admirers and critics, and by their own successes and short-outs.
Except that this is just as far as these Zags were ever going to go. Indeed, they probably bowed their ceiling just getting here.
This was emphatically driven home by the Wildcats, who undressed the Bulldogs of the ball, and various items of clothing, every third time down the floor, to the point where Gonzaga might want to rethink the agreement, beginning next year, to revive the schools’ series in the winter months.
Then again, maybe the Zags made enough of the Wildcats look NBA-ready that some roster depletion could even things up.
“It was a highlight reel,” Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos admitted.
Reel is right. Bulldog heads were swiveling a full 360 from the Arizona blitz.
Steal, alley-oop, tip layup. Strip, behind-the-back pass, layup. Ill-timed pass, fumbled catch, run-out, dunk. Hurried shot, rebound, touchdown pass, reverse jam.
Rinse and repeat.
It wasn’t just the Bulldogs who were dizzied. For the last minute, the Viejas Arena scoreboard showed the score as 81-64, though perhaps that was a pity vote from the head table.
So overwhelming were the Wildcats in this one single aspect that it overshadowed their mere competence in some other areas.
Still, coach Mark Few pronounced it “the best team we’ve played that I can remember,” though previous NCAA blowouts at the hands of North Carolina and Syracuse make them contenders.
“There was only a positive matchup here and there,” he said, noting center Przemek Karnowski’s double-double effort, “and when we couldn’t exploit that (due to) not taking care of the ball, that killed us.”
The 21 turnovers were a high in a season in which, Few offered, “one of the reasons we won 29 games is we took great care of the basketball.” Oddly, it was not their worst NCAA showing in that department, but 24 turnovers in a 2000 win over Louisville were an afterthought in a giddy locker room.
This night, the Zags didn’t even get a chance to crack a smile.
First came the initial Arizona salvo. Then Pangos badly rolled an ankle on a fall barely four minutes into the game, though he was back from the locker room by the next TV timeout and persevered through 27 more minutes.
Gary Bell Jr., so precious to the Zags in their late- and post-season surge, never made a shot. Senior Sam Dower Jr., after a few early buckets, was soon overwhelmed. When the Zags weren’t giving up uncontested runouts, the Wildcats were beating them to the rim.
Arizona’s superiority was roundly acknowledged, though Bell demurred somewhat.
“I don’t feel they pressured us that much,” he said. “We just made some dumb plays we don’t usually make. We’ve handled pressure this whole year – Arkansas, Oklahoma State. I don’t think it was pressure at all.”
And that pratfall on the biggest of stages went down especially hard with one Zag. It turns out that Dower, whose loose, sleepy manner sometimes suggests a nominal investment, cares very much after all.
Asked about for his thoughts after his last Gonzaga game, he admitted that “I didn’t play the best today” – and promptly broke down on the dais as Few and Karnowski tried to console him.
“My teammates were there the whole time,” he finally continued, “and they picked me up. They kept looking for me. Whatever, even though we lost, we still lost as a team.”
They also won – 29 times. Considering they lost an immense presence inside when Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris were taken in the 2013 NBA draft, along with the conference defensive player of the year in Mike Hart, that’s remarkable.
Throwing in the midseason injuries to Bell and Dower, the season-long foot issues of Pangos, a roster that left a 3-point shooting three man – Drew Barham – as the backup big guy and all manner of “makeshift lineups,” as Few called them, and it’s eye-popping.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” said Dower, more composed later in the locker room.
“When we had adversity, we took it to heart that we had to pick it up – and we did. And it got us into the tournament and a win in the tournament.”
Noted teammate Kyle Dranginis: “Everybody thought it was a rebuilding year. I think we made it a little more than that.”
Arizona simply made sure it wasn’t something even bigger.
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