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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Concerns, yes, but two Zags losses don’t mean meltdown

Remember that in “The China Syndrome,” there was never an actual core melt, only a shudder – a “vibration” – and some never specified damage to the reactor.

But, hey, dangerous stuff, and not just because Jack Lemmon took a bullet.

Here in the early stages of Gonzaga’s basketball season, the Zag meltdown is being explored in many variations, and while it’s nothing catastrophic yet – the losses have been administered by two Top 25 teams less than a quarter of the way into the season –somebody like Lemmon had better check the welds.

The most damaging things about Saturday’s 68-63 swoon against Arizona were A) the wince factor of how it looked (Four turnovers in a minute? One bucket in the final 6 1/2?) and B) that it happened in the Bulldogs’ McCarthey Athletic Center cocoon, where they’re are presumed to be indemnified against such indignities.

Even if they’re not. In recent years, the Zags have fallen in the Kennel to the likes of Illinois, Michigan State, San Diego State and Wake Forest.

Things turned out OK for most of those Gonzaga teams, if memory serves.

But growth is never automatic, a lesson the Zags absorbed in painful fashion Saturday.

In the last 10 days, Gonzaga has seen half of a 24-point lead against Washington washed away (and it could have been worse if the Huskies were even remotely organized), scored a single point in the last 5 1/2 minutes in a loss to Texas A&M, frittered away all but a point of a 21-point hammer to UConn and let Washington State crawl back from 15 down to six. Then came Saturday’s puddle.

This is not textbook stress management. There are also harsher words for it.

“It should piss you off,” senior Eric McClellan allowed. “It pisses me off. Any competitor will tell you that. But it’s December and we still have to tighten some things up. We’re not where we want to be.”

Then again, neither are the Wildcats, who on Saturday started a true freshman, a JC transfer and a sophomore 7-footer all very much in growth mode. The difference was this: There was a senior guard who, in dire straits, did what needed to be done. That was Gabe York, who shook loose for four 3-pointers in the first 7 minutes of the second half to pull the Wildcats into a tie – against a defense that has been downright stingy on the perimeter.

“I just had to take it upon myself,” York said. “I’m not trying to put the team on my back every game, but in this situation, in this environment when you’re a little hesitant …”

You need to be something else.

This was more or less Arizona coach Sean Miller’s message at halftime, when the Wildcats trailed by 10 – though it could have been much worse without freshman Allonzo Trier bouncing in six points in the last 90 seconds.

“We didn’t win one war in the first half,” York admitted.

Most of those wars were fought inside, and even with Przemek Karnowski taking an uncomfortable perch on the bench with his bad back, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis were mighty. It took until just 4:17 remained in the first half before someone other than a big got a bucket for the Zags. But by game’s end, they had taken 43 of GU’s 61 shots and logged 74 minutes, and the short banks and rolls to the hoop that were money earlier turned into IOUs. In that regard, the Zags were betrayed by too much of a good thing in both plan and circumstance.

“No question, it could have made (GU’s guards) timid,” said coach Mark Few of the constant looks inside. “But in the end, they all had open looks and opportunities in the open court. We’ve got to get them to have enough confidence and enough game to make those plays.”

Added McClellan, “We shouldn’t be leaving those guys (Sabonis and Wiltjer) out there on an island to produce for us.”

When you have been hyped as having the nation’s best front line – and, really, the evidence continues to suggest it’s not a stretch – it’s not much of a subconscious leap to the misbegotten notion that little else is necessary. In fact, much more is necessary.

“We’ve got to be able to score more than 63 points at home,” Few said.

There is a settling influence on the bench in Karnowski, whose absence was balanced by Arizona missing its own 7-foot anchor, Kaleb Tarczewski. Gonzaga’s offense just hums better when he’s “connecting the dots” as Few said. But the Bulldogs need it from the outside in, too. The point guard can’t have a sub-1.00 assist-to-turnover ratio. The seniors have to operate with will and purpose – “to change our mentality,” as one of them, Kyle Dranginis, put it.

Especially at game’s end. Or that shudder will be something more than just a bad vibe.

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