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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blanchette: Bulldogs, Zag nation breathe sigh of relief

LAS VEGAS – In the confetti squall and general delirium at Orleans Arena on Tuesday night, Gonzaga coach Mark Few came face to face with Jonathan Fierro, the ramrod of the HBO crew which has had its lenses and microphones in every inch of airspace surrounding the Bulldogs the last few weeks as their cable serial has unfolded.

“How’s that story?” Few asked, needing no answer.

But he could have been more specific.

Did he mean the story of the NCAA tournament streak that was on life support, but just wouldn’t kick? Or the story of a West Coast Conference tournament run that was as dazzling – not as dominant, but actually better – as any the Zags have put together in their two decades of writing and rewriting college basketball’s best narrative? Or was it the twist on the long-ago castoff theme of the Little Engine That Could, now reborn as something more along the lines of Six of Seven Characters in Search of an Author?

Pick one. The Bulldogs lived out all of them and turned up every right card in four pressure-packed days in a city built on the blackjack bust.

In dispatching the Saint Mary’s Gaels 85-75 in the championship game, the Zags not only assured themselves of an 18th consecutive trip to the NCAAs, but their own special place in that ridiculous legacy.

And, of course, not the awkward relation status of being the team that failed to carry it on.

Madness interruptus? Not these Zags.

And as with previous Gonzaga teams which likely needed to win their way into the bracket through this tournament – the 2011 and 2007 editions come most recently to mind – the release of joy reached new heights of silliness. That was Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins making snow angels in all that shredded paper carpeting the floor, wasn’t it?

“This was huge for us,” admitted senior Kyle Wiltjer, the tournament’s most outstanding player. “Obviously, nothing’s guaranteed and we didn’t want to be on the outside looking in on Sunday.”

Now all they have to look for is their opponent and destination, but at this point that could be Okinawa, where the season got off to its odd and halting start, for all they care.

The anxiety of waiting now belongs to the Gaels, a 27-5 team with a doughy resume, though coach Randy Bennett isn’t entertaining any nitpicking.

“The only thing we didn’t do,” he said, “is beat Gonzaga three times.”

It’s been 20 years since anyone has, and Bennett has no problem admiring the standard the Bulldogs have set – and the national scope of their achievements.

“It’s impressive,” he said. “They have a lot to do with us getting good. They put the bar up there and we’ve tried to get there with them.

“I don’t think anybody in the country – you take Duke, you take any of them – has done a better job with a program than Mark and the people of Gonzaga. The players have changed, the coach hasn’t.”

But this was not a cookie-cutter season. The Zags went to war with just nine scholarship players and lost 7-1 giant Przemek Karnowski as the clock turned December. Extra weight was dumped on Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis as guards both young and veteran struggled to find roles, rhythm and consistency. Games with NCAA import – home games, no less – were kicked away.

The growth curve has been the longest for any GU team. And then another injury here whittled their rotation down to six.

“It’s your experiences that define you,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “We’ve got battle scars. This is the most gratifying (championship) – the adversity, losing our way, having to reinvent ourselves multiple times. The growth of these guards has been unbelievable.”

Oh, them. Note that all five starters scored between 13-20 points against the Gaels – balance the Bulldogs sweated to find all year. When the game had to be won – or secured – McClellan scored 15 of the team’s 17 points, finished off by an exclamation-point dunk. His absence from the all-tournament team reigned as the night’s injustice.

“All of us wanted (the guards) to be great that first game in Okinawa,” Few said. “You’re pressing, you want them to be perfect because each of these games matters and counts. For a while it was hard for them to take coaching – I think they took it personally. I think they grew enough not to take it personally. Everybody’s trying to get to the same place.”

And here’s the curious thing. For all their recruiting gains in 20 years – McDonald’s All-Americans come now, and not just McDonald’s customers with a chip on their shoulders – here’s how the Zags reinvented themselves in Vegas:

“They were the hunter this whole tournament, not the hunted,” Few said. “It was nice – we haven’t been in that position much.”

But this position – headed for the NCAAs? At 18 and counting, it seems like they’ve been here forever.