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Blanchette: Hard work keeps Zags’ ‘epic’ run alive

Coach Mark Few encourages his Bulldogs during the first half of the Zags’ 88-84 semifinal win over BYU. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Coach Mark Few encourages his Bulldogs during the first half of the Zags’ 88-84 semifinal win over BYU. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – Another chapter for the Big Book of Zag Lore.

Well, maybe not a whole chapter. But way more than a footnote.

With their NCAA tournament hopes in the balance and a roster dwindling to thin, thinner, thinnest, the Gonzaga Bulldogs stared down doubters, snipers and other assorted fools – and the Brigham Young Cougars – on Monday night.

And they played as if a slot in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game is their birthright.

Maybe it is.

For the 19th straight year, the Zags will make an appearance on championship night on the strength – just the right word –of an 88-84 decision over the Cougars in a game that coach Mark Few labeled “epic” without any rebuttal.

And, yes, 19 years.

“That’s unbelievable,” Few said. “You know what I’m saying? That’s just crazy.”

And, of course, their streak of NCAA appearances, holding at 17 straight, remains intact, though likely WCC co-champ Saint Mary’s will have to be hurdled tonight – though it was Few with the rebuttal on that score.

“We don’t get to vote – that’s the frustrating thing,” he said. “The dialogue is being set almost out there, and I disagree with all that. All you have to do is watch us and see.

“We went through a period when we had to adjust to life without Przemek (Karnowski, the injured center) and lost some heartbreakers – we had Arizona and UCLA at our place just days after that. But we worked our way through that. We know who we are, and we’re playing good basketball right now.”

Other than some turnover issues – eight in the last 10 minutes of the first half, especially – the Zags weren’t just good against the Cougars, but great.

Any numbers could be cited – Kyle Wiltjer’s 29 points on clutch shooting inside and out, Domantas Sabonis with an 18-point, 14-rebound line against blocking-sled contact, Josh Perkins outpointing and out-point-guarding BYU ace Kyle Collinsworth.

But it was more in the telling baskets and steely plays – and in their timing – that defined the Zags this night, even as their earlier opportunities this season were defined by a failure to make those baskets and complete those plays that would make life more comfortable right now.

On offense: Wiltjer’s corner 3 – after he’d gone 10 minutes without a field goal –when the Cougars had pulled within one with five minutes to play.

On defense: BYU didn’t have field goals on consecutive possessions the entire second half – nothing resembling a run.

On the glass: With the lead at four and Perkins missing a 3 with the clock at :50, Wiltjer –not noted as the grittiest of rebounders – was able to fight off a crowd and knock the ball out to teammate Kyle Dranginis. And then the Zags buried all the free throws they needed.

For the shootout it was, holding BYU to 38 percent shooting and beating the Cougars on the glass was central to Gonzaga’s victory.

“Wiltj had probably his best defensive game,” Few said. “But the huge thing was, we got Domas through the first half with no fouls and were able to put him on Collinsworth. That’s a testament to how versatile he is. It alleviated us having to double-team him. When he posts up a guard, we have to double team – and that’s why those 3s were open in the first half.”

Few has acknowledged Gonzaga’s failures down the stretch of their losses – but he also believes this team has been shortchanged, too.

“I’ve been in (the NCAA) tournament and blessed to be a 1 seed, a 2, whatever. If I was a 1 or 2 seed and saw this team pop up against it, I wouldn’t sleep that week, I tell you what.

“We’ve been in every game down to the last possession and if we played 1 seeds or 2 seeds this year, we’d play them down to the last possession. To me, that’s a tournament team. And if I was a team and saw BYU pop up, I wouldn’t sleep. Or Saint Mary’s. I think the league has been undervalued.”

In suggesting his team has “not had an off-night,” Few may be forgetting the second Saint Mary’s game, or maybe attributing that to the Gaels’ demonstrable superiority that night. But he’s right that mostly the Zags’ slip-ups have all been close – and no series had been as close as this BYU business, decided by eight points over three games.

“I don’t know if it’s a rivalry,” Wiltjer said. “I think in a rivalry you have to hate the other side and those are such nice kid. There was one time at the free throw line they were like, ‘It’s all right, Kyle, you’ve got it next time.’ I was like, ‘Wow, these are nice guys.’”

Offered Perkins, “The real rivalry is tomorrow.”

And maybe another chapter – or the closing of the book.

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