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Blanchette on Zags: This had to happen sometime

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few rallies guard Josh Perkins against Saint Mary's during the game in February. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few rallies guard Josh Perkins against Saint Mary's during the game in February. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette Correspondent

College basketball’s weightiest question: when does at-large become fat chance?

Answer: Saturday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

So if nothing else, Saint Mary’s carving up and smothering Gonzaga 63-58 —turning a championship showdown into an ambush — brought a certain clarity to the proceedings of this Bulldogs basketball season, even as it muddied some details.

That championship business, for starters.

The Zags could have clinched a tie for their 15th West Coast Conference round-robin title in 16 years with a win over the Gaels; now they need help to avoid a seeding tiebreaker they’ll lose — if they even get that close.

Though, naturally, there is no surrender showing.

“We promised you a league championship,” Eric McClellan told the slice of the Senior Night crowd that stuck around for the traditional post-game salutes, “and that’s what we’re going to give you.”

It’s bold thinking. One stop the Zags must make is at Brigham Young, and the Cougars already bested Gonzaga the first time around in Spokane — one of four teams to win in McCarthey this season.

Four. The building was more than five years old before the Bulldogs had suffered their first four losses inside its doors.

There were other bookkeeping curios in that vein. The Gaels hadn’t pulled off a season sweep of Gonzaga since 1995 (with an asterisk — GU beat them en route to winning the WCC tournament). And no league opponent had done the deed since San Diego in 1997.

Those can be filed in the “Had to Happen Sometime” drawer. It’s getting a little full — with an elephant sized folder growing in the ‘In’ box.

The Bulldogs’ winter-long flirtation with missing the NCAA tournament — one resume-building game at a time — has turned into a full-fledged love-hate relationship. And Saturday’s loss should be the signal that if the Zags don’t win the WCC tournament and the automatic berth that goes with it, they’ll have to find some other way to amuse themselves come the third week of March.

“Look, we can control what we do on the floor,” said coach Mark Few. “All that other stuff is … whatever.

“We have to play better, plain and simple — whether it’s taking care of the ball in the first half, making the right reads with what we’re doing offensively or shoring up those defensive liabilities they exposed tonight. We’ve done that this year. We’ve done it for long stretches. But we didn’t do it tonight.”

And, no, it was not a “bad” loss — not in the computer-RPI-KenPom-we-were-told-there-would-be-no-math sense, or in any sense other than that the Zags were thoroughly outplayed. The Gaels are still in the RPI’s top 70, a few spots behind Gonzaga. They’re legit enough, if not the equal of some of Randy Bennett’s best teams.

And Gonzaga still has no “bad” losses, by any algebra — no bottom-100 bums.

But the tipping point has probably been reached where that particular boutonniere no longer gussies up the fraying tux. The Bulldogs have had opportunity after opportunity to add significant victories to its ledger and failed, and can only cling to a couple of notables back in November against teams — Washington and Connecticut — sliding around on the bubble themselves.

The Gaels are in that situation, too — the respect they earned Saturday may not be redeemed if a case has to be made in the NCAA committee room.

But this kind always feels good — especially in Gonzaga’s building.

“This group is pretty tough,” Bennett said. “Our guys were able to focus really well under a lot of pressure. Just start with this place. Then you’re playing a reall good team, and there’s something on the line, too.”

In the clubs’ first meeting, the Gaels needed a gallant comeback/Gonzaga meltdown to get it done. This time they got a little separation by knocking down 3s in the first half, then drove the Zags crazy with guard penetration in the second.

And they completely choked off Kyle Wiltjer, which they’d also done in the first game, and Domantas Sabonis — really the first time all year a team has neutralized both.

The best front line in America? It was outscored by the best front line in Moraga.

“Sabonis really played well down at our place,” Bennett said, “and hit some tough shots. I said, ‘Listen, I’m not sure he’s going to hit those shots against us again.’”

In this case, he barely even got those shots — only two in the second half. That left Josh Perkins as GU’s only offensive threat, and a very Decemberish look for the Zags.

Still, it isn’t March yet. And Bennett had a little wisdom for his team regarding momentum and opportunity that Gonzaga might want to embrace.

“A lot of it,” he said, “is just staying excited to play.”

Even if the thrill is gone, time — but probably only one shot — remains to get a piece of it back.

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