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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Zags must enter high-anxiety semifinals with big worries about bigs

LAS VEGAS – It’s rare anymore that the West Coast Conference basketball tournament reverts back to a scuffler’s convention like the Big Sky or Horizon or the other leagues in single-bid hell.

But at Orleans Arena, it’s all-for-one-available-spot in the NCAA’s 68-passenger van, so at least theoretically Loyola Marymount, say, came into the joint Saturday night on equal footing with Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s.

And yet the drama was, how shall we say, muted.

Well, somewhat. Who would have thought that the only rout of the night would produce the only true anxiety?

Or, as Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd pointed out, “Before the season everybody was saying we had too many bigs. Now we have two.”

More on that development later. Let’s run through the preliminaries:

Brigham Young had a few flop-sweat moments with Santa Clara, but the only real mystery was why the Cougars wear home whites with smudge streaks on the shorts, making it look as if the players wiped their hands after changing the oil.

Pepperdine held off San Francisco in the 4-vs-5-seed game, after which USF coach Rex Walters allowed he’d like to play in the CIT or CBI thingamabobs, if the players are willing. Apparently, some previous Dons teams weren’t eager to put in overtime with Rex – but we knew that already from all the transfer paperwork being moved around by forklift.

Saint Mary’s trailed LMU at halftime before the Gaels figured out they were playing the eight seed. Which left … Gonzaga and Portland.

If that had been the one that didn’t follow the chalk, there might be a crater where the campus is this morning.

But the Bulldogs more or less toyed with the Pilots, leading by as much as 19 in the first half and then settling for a 92-67 victory that revealed one more “oh-oh” – a knee injury that looks likely to sideline Ryan Edwards, the Zags’ only backup big man.

It also revealed some “wow” – a few new moves that Domantas Sabonis unsealed, possibly in honor of his father – NBA and Olympic great Arvydas Sabonis – being on hand.

Sometimes you long for the charming yarns that unravel in the junk drawers of college basketball – Austin Peay, an eight seed, winning the Ohio Valley tournament and the NCAA bid, or Yale making the bracket for the first time since 1962.

But here we’ll have to settle for the risky business of the four best teams playing for one bracket scrap.

And what would this Gonzaga season be without a nightly date with the worry beads?

Edwards’ modest averages – 2.8 points. 2.3 rebounds, 9 minutes a game – belie his worth as foul and energy relief for the main drivers of Gonzaga’s success, Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Against the bangers and depth of BYU come Monday night, that becomes even more of a concern.

“We’ll just deal with whatever we have to deal with,” coach Mark Few said. “We played small some tonight and we’ve played small this year. Domas gets mad when I take him out anyway, so we can alleviate that whole situation. And Wiltjer’s never too pleased, either.”

Maybe they should investigate more creative alternatives. One of the 2017 recruits, Zach Collins of nearby Bishop Gorman High School, was sitting in the front row Saturday night. Perhaps the Zags could get a emergency-goalie waiver from the WCC.

“I wish,” Collins said.

Of course, they may not need him if Sabonis can break loose the way he did against Portland – though he’s had a fairly rough time of it in both meetings with BYU this season.

Some of his moves looked like fresh inventions – a where’d-he-go step away in the post, a nifty catch and over-his-head reverse on a lob pass, and even a behind-the-back dribble on a fast-break.

Were these Dad inspired?

“Usually I’m more nervous when my dad’s here,” Sabonis said. “He talks to me after the game so I already know if I mess up or something, he’s going to tell me right after. So I just try to have fun out there. He tells me to stay aggressive and don’t be scared to try new things out.”

The critique this night might be about rebounding – a season-low four – but even the old man had to be impressed. Two Lithuanian federation officials – including the senior national coach – got an eyeful, too.

And not just from Sabonis. The Zags turned it over only five times, a season low, and got a career-high 26 points from Eric McClellan.

“Last week, we were playing for a conference championship,” said McClellan, referencing the season-finale win over BYU. “Now we’re playing for an NCAA bid. It’s a different game, but the mentality has to stay the same.”

And the drama ramps up – immediately.

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