SEATTLE – There are a few ways to look at Gonzaga’s Battle in Seattle escape Saturday:
A) We’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again, so you might want to install air bags on your big screen or McCarthey Athletic Center seat.
B) The strong first half – and the late dig-in –to beat Tennessee 86-79 suggests the Zags are getting it figured out just in time for West Coast Conference play to open Monday. (OK, this is just one of those options pollsters throw in for “balance,” not expecting anyone to bite.)
C) What the hell? Monday?
Yes, indeed. In the continued bludgeoning of common sense and everything that used to be holy about college basketball scheduling, Pepperdine’s Waves roll into the Mac in a little more than 24 hours – the first time the WCC has beaten Santa to town.
How about next year they tip it off on Black Friday?
This early bird special is being pinned on a quirk of the calendar (did someone remove some days from the year?) and Brigham Young’s participation in a Hawaii tournament this week and who knows what else, and it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal to the Zags or anyone else – except in Gonzaga’s case, a home-away-from-home game was booked late on a Saturday night before the Monday-Wednesday WCC parlay, making for three games in six nights.
“Horrible, horrible scheduling on our part,” allowed Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
But that was his afterthought.
His first thought was how jazzed he was to walk out of the KeyArena locker room before tipoff and see 16,770 filling the seats – and in pretty full throat, too.
“Unbelievable crowd,” he said, and it was – holiday travel through the air, through highway slush and on Seattle surface streets on the last shopping Saturday being what it is.
Possibly disbelieving, too.
Because again the Zags built a substantial lead – once 19 points, and 16 at halftime – and frittered it completely away in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
They even reprised the swoon in miniature, getting back on top by six in the late going and giving it away in the space of a minute.
“We have a tendency,” Few said, “to make things really dramatic.”
And this wasn’t against a Top 25 outfit like Arizona or UCLA or Texas A&M – though, of course, the Bulldogs have been equal opportunity, uh, opportuners for opponents of all levels.
Which no doubt has all the WCC cousins a little giddy, seeing as how they were being routinely dismissed in all the preseason hubbub over The Best Front Line in College Basketball – never mind that it’s a 5-on-5 game.
In fact, the first batter up – Pepperdine – is cause for concern because A) the Waves are the most veteran team in the league and B) their undersized bigs present some guarding problems not unlike what Tennessee offered, though the Vols are considerably quicker and more athletic.
But then, the Zags have Domantas Sabonis, and the career highs of 36 points and 16 rebounds he laid on the Vols do suggest he has it figured out.
At least down the stretch, the Zags did, too. They finally got a couple of stops against the take-it-to-the-tin Vols – most significant being the ultra-solid D by Kyle Dranginis against Kevin Punter on a drive with the Bulldogs clinging to a four-point lead.
And Kyle Wiltjer, whose 24 points were a key complement to Sabonis, got himself to the foul line when needed.
Both have been concerns to Few – but especially the defense, even if all the worriers can’t come to grips with the Bulldogs scoring in the 60s.
“We’ve got to stay aggressive on defense,” he said. “The second-half defense hasn’t been as stout in our three losses, and some of our other games. We’ve got to make strides there. We have to. That’s more of an issue for us. Everybody’s always focusing on the offensive problems – the scoring, or the guards or whatever – but we have to ‘next play’ it on defense, too, after a breakdown and bear down even more.”
Same goes with the WCC season. It isn’t as if the Bulldogs have ever taken it for granted. In their better years, running the table has been a point of pride. In their not-quite-as-good years it’s always building block for March.
Given the trials of early December, this year’s WCC season could be as important as Gonzaga has experienced in more than a decade.
Because there will be more nights like this.
“This is who we are,” sighed Few. “We’re just … maddening.”
Another way to look at it.
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