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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Blanchette: Gonzaga still searching for way to close out victories

A dejected Kyle Dranginis, left, and Eric McClellan head off the court after GU’s last-second loss to BYU. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
A dejected Kyle Dranginis, left, and Eric McClellan head off the court after GU’s last-second loss to BYU. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Curious behavior trending at McCarthey Athletic Center these days: the customers are cutting out with the outcome still in doubt.

One-possession game? It’s a signal – to more than a few – for coats-on-up-the-stairs-out-the-door-beat-the-traffic.

Not that their choice can necessarily be second-guessed.

It’s just that soon enough, the exodus might start the first time the home team finds itself behind as the clock ticks toward reckoning.

Because it happened again Thursday night. Having staked themselves to a substantial, defendable lead, the Gonzaga Bulldogs failed to preserve it – and now find themselves drifting into ever-more dangerous circumstances as the season inches into its second half.

Lots of journey left, sure. It’s just that the route is not so well-lighted as usual.

Brigham Young’s 69-68 victory over the Zags was no great surprise, of course. The Cougars did it to a much better Gonzaga team at the MAC last year. But that was the exception – and at least it served the purpose of spurring the Bulldogs into a strong run through the West Coast Conference tournament.

But now it’s as if it’s been woven into the fabric.

“Really disappointing,” said Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer, who couldn’t will the Zags to victory despite a third straight performance of 30 points or more. “We hate losing.”

And yet here are the Zags, losers three times in their own building this season – a first in the 12-year-old history of the MAC. It’s also the most defeats on campus since the 1991 season, not that many of the folks making the early bolt to the exits realize the school fielded a team back then.

“We’re still going to win the league,” insisted Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins. “I’m positive of that.”

Hmm. Wonder if he’ll make himself available to comfort the brow-moppers at the next fan fretfest.

Actually, that sort of assurance has to be refreshing in a locker room and layup line of a team for which absolutely nothing has come easily this season. Then again, it’s not like staying upbeat is an exclusive skill.

“I think the theme of tonight was just stay in the present and stay positive,” said BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth. “We had a couple guys get in foul trouble, but we stayed positive, kept fighting. We got down 11, our huddle was very positive.”

One of those guys was Collinsworth himself, who picked up two early fouls trying to defend Wiltjer and sat the rest of the half.

“For me, sitting out (10) minutes, I thought, ‘This could be a blessing – I’ll be well-rested for the second half,’ ” he said. “I looked at it like that.”

Well, yes, and having your car battery die because you left the lights on means you’re saving money on gas. Thinking positive is great.

Making a positive is better, and Collinsworth did that, too.

He had 18 of his 20 points in the second half, 13 over the course of eight minutes when the Cougars fought back from 13 down to take their first lead. Those were all post-ups and drives except for an out-of-character 3 (he’s a 16 percent shooter from the arc, and BYU made just three of 17 this night).

It was not a coincidence that for much of that time, Domantas Sabonis was on the Gonzaga bench, foul issues limiting him to just 21 minutes. Averaging 22 points a game in WCC play, he finished with just five – though not having him there to protect the rim and rebound misses was just as big.

And it made the Zags of one dimension, as opposed to the usual two.

“We’ve been riding Domas and Wilterj as a two-man crew,” acknowledged Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson. “And you can’t just have one guy do it especially against an offense as explosive as BYU’s.”

But let’s acknowledge the Cougars’ defense, too – never known as part of their DNA. Wiltjer and Sabonis barely touched the ball for a stretch of five minutes in the game’s deciding moments, and Nate Austin blocked two big shots in the last minute. For the first time all season, the Zags shot under 40 percent – 37.9.

But in many other respects, the game was all too familiar – the wasted lead, the lack of enough big plays at the end, the overdependence on a single player.

“We’ve had more close games this year than probably in multiple seasons,” said Michaelson, “and at times we’ve been really resilient – USF, Santa Clara, Montana. But you remember the times you weren’t and the ones you lose.”

And, yes, in each of GU’s four losses – three to ranked teams – they were in one-possession games in the final minute.

But you don’t concoct an identity by hanging tough against USF, Santa Clara and Montana. The legacy the program’s made for itself is the product of achieving against the better teams on the schedule. It’s what’s kept them around.

And kept people in their seats.

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