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John Blanchette: Shots start falling for Gonzaga guard Silas Melson

Gonzaga guard Silas Melson (0) dribbles the ball around Portland guard Alec Wintering (2) during the second half in Saturday’s WCC tournament game. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Silas Melson (0) dribbles the ball around Portland guard Alec Wintering (2) during the second half in Saturday’s WCC tournament game. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – The resurrection of Silas Melson can be illustrated with the most elementary distinction.

When he shoots the basketball now, you expect it to go in. Just five weeks ago, such a thing was regarded as a happy accident.

There is more to it, of course. There is confidence and perseverance, support and toil. A teammate’s good word, a coach’s challenge. Late nights in the gym, and even later nights lying awake trying to convince himself his next shot is going down. And more than just shots – basketball isn’t played on just one end of the floor.

That his fortunes turned in such stark and sudden fashion is the kind of mystery usually attributed to unnamed basketball gods – does basketball have any atheists? – but turn they did, and just in time for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

“He’s spent so much time trying to make it right,” said coach Mark Few, “and it’s coincided with us playing better, which just shows again how much we need our perimeters to be able to score.”

This will be the case again Monday night as the Zags continue their drive for another championship at the West Coast Conference tournament here at Orleans Arena, this time in the semifinals against Brigham Young. The latest crisis in Zagdom is the possibility that the Bulldogs will have not a single frontcourt backup – Ryan Edwards injured a knee Saturday – which puts an even greater premium on guard play.

It was hardly Melson’s intent to swoop in with a solution here in the last month of the season. He’d planned the same coming-out party for his sophomore season that the coaching staff anticipated – and was genuinely mystified when things went not just south, but Antarctic.

“The deepest hole,” he said, “I’ve ever been in.”

There was already a scrim hazing our impressions of Silas Melson even before this season’s issues. Oregon’s player of the year at Jefferson High School, he’d decided to redshirt his first year at Gonzaga because of the experienced ensemble ahead of him at guard. Then Josh Perkins had his jaw shattered by an opponent’s kick and Melson was rushed back as relief, though minutes were scarce.

But the door was obviously open for more this season, and Melson had some solid performances early –including a 12 points-4 rebounds-3 assists line in 35 minutes against Connecticut.

“You thought he’d turned the corner,” said assistant coach Donny Daniels, “and then what happened?”

Too many nights when Melson’s production matched his jersey number.

Through one stretch that spanned five games, he was 0 of 17 from the field. He went more than a month making just a single 3-pointer. Often his misses weren’t just misses – they were Greek tragedies.

“I couldn’t even answer the question of why my shots weren’t going in,” he said. “I was doing everything I possibly could to get it going. So I just tried to do everything else – play defense and be there for my teammates and be positive about everything, because I knew it would come.”

There weren’t a lot of faithful in that congregation, but come it did.

Consider this: Up to the last game of January, Melson was making just 30 percent of his shots – 22.9 on 3s – and averaging 4.8 points. In his last 10 games: 52.8 percent, 46.2 on 3s, 11.7 points.

“And we don’t run anything for Silas,” Daniels said. “He just plays off our bigs and off Josh and finds his way.”

Some tinkering was done with his mechanics during the depths, but Melson’s adjustments went beyond that.

“It wasn’t all about offense,” Daniels said. “How he got on the floor and stayed there was his defense and he came to understand and invest in that. Stay in the game and you’ve got time to hit a shot and get more rhythm.

“But he’s gone back to being a driver more, getting to the rim or getting off the floater. It isn’t all about the 3. Now he gets into more situations on the run and using his speed, getting into the lane and using his leaping ability. He gets to the line more. People have to play him differently. Give him credit: He figured it out.”

But mostly, Melson sticks with it. That was true in high school when he enrolled at Jefferson with a talented freshman class in the wake of three straight state titles. Many of those players transferred within a year or two, unhappy – or with unhappy parents – about the program coming back to earth. Melson stayed, and led the Democrats to another state title as senior.

The Zags have come back to earth a bit this year, too, in their biggest games – though the season-finale win at BYU infused their postseason with some confidence and hope.

“To see any opportunity like that get away, it hurts,” Melson said. “And then to see it happen over and over and over again, you just get tired of it. So it’s great to come to March playing your best basketball.”

And not have it be a happy accident.

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