Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blanchette: Gonzaga doesn’t make plays at critical time in loss to UCLA

The downside to getting prime-time basketball names like Arizona and UCLA in your gym?

The odds of losing go up.

But maybe it’s time to face that fact of life about the Gonzaga Bulldogs, as they’re currently constituted. Nobody’s going to give them any two-foot putts this year.

Not the resume-building opponents, obviously. Probably not the lodge brothers in the West Coast Conference, either.

This is not the news the average Zagophile wants to find in his Yule stocking. When the Gonzaga schedule finally dribbled out over the summer, he looked at this stretch and gleefully rubbed his hands together in anticipation – not only of the dizzying atmosphere in the Kennel, but of being in the national conversation again.

Hand rubbing is now hand wringing.

In the last eight days, the Bulldogs have blown a 14-point lead to fall to Arizona, narrowly averted apocalypse when a potential overtime-forcing 3 by Montana caromed off and, Saturday night, come up short of the kind of season-defining plays that UCLA made in a 71-66 victory. Also, their taken-for-granted 7-foot center has been felled by a nasty back injury that’s getting worse instead of better and has everyone spooked.

Come Monday, the Zags will be out of the Top 25 for the first time since the end of 2014 – but more telling, out of a pre-New Year’s poll for the first time since 2012.

Not all bad, that.

Sometimes a look in the mirror and a fashion reassessment is a good thing. You can’t rely on that ugly old sweater being the hit of this Christmas party just because it made you the center of attention the last 17 years.

“We’ve just lost to two NCAA tournament teams (that) should be single-digit seeds,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “If we want to get to that level, then we’ve got to be able to step up and knock off teams like that.”

Instead of stepping up Saturday night, the Zags stumbled – down a point at the last TV timeout when:

  • Josh Perkins missed a free throw to tie;
  • Eric McClellan missed a hurried layup on the break to take the lead;
  • Perkins missed a 3 to tie;
  • Perkins turned it over in traffic when he fell coming off a ball screen, the result a “pick six” for the Bruins, who scored on the break for a five-point lead;
  • Kyle Dranginis missed an open 3 to tie.

Four plays to tie or take the lead and one to keep it a single-possession game, and the Bulldogs accomplished none of those things.

“Execution-wise, we have to know what works and what doesn’t at the end of games,” said senior Kyle Wiltjer.

OK. But foul shots, layups and open 3s should work.

This is not giving much credit to the Bulldogs for scrapping back from an eight-point deficit with seven minutes to play – but, of course, it took seven straight empty possessions for such a deficit to come about.

It also doesn’t give enough credit to the Bruins, who had a sure thing down low in brawny Tony Parker, a smooth operator all over in Isaac Hamilton and a huge double-double off the bench from Jonah Bolden, who normally plays in 4-4 time.

It’s easy enough to say that these Bulldogs aren’t equipped to beat an Arizona or a UCLA, because normally by mid-December we have seen precisely what a Gonzaga team is capable of – because they’ve already done it. A sampling of the first-month victims of the ghosts of Gonzagas past: UCLA, Arizona, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Maryland. More on request.

And the thing is, Few believes the Zags are equipped.

No, they don’t have Przemek Karnowski, and that’s a loss a scant few expected to be so damaging.

“I don’t know if he’s our best player,” Few said, “but he’s our most valuable player.”

But it’s not as if the Zags are playing four on five.

“These guys at some point have to step up and be more assertive,” said Few. “We’ve got to start growing Domas (Sabonis) in that role. ‘Wiltj’ has got to shoot some of those balls when we get it to him with 10 on the clock. That’s what everybody else has done coming through here, when you’re the guy.”

Indeed, in that earlier list of what went wrong for the Zags down the stretch, one glaring part was who wasn’t taking those shots.

“And we’ve got to do a better job of getting to the foul line – everybody’s out free-throwing us,” said Few – and the national stats back him up. The Zags are 304th out of 351 Division I teams in free throws attempted.

It’s the simplest play of all.

“And that’s what we have to do – make plays,” he said. “That’s how you win. That’s how all our other teams have won. It’s how anybody wins.”

And this year especially, the Zags are going to have to make every putt.