DENVER – How did anyone not see this coming?
It’s the dance, right? Gonzaga’s in it, yes? Of course yes.
It was the first round, right? And the last time the Bulldogs didn’t survive the first round it took Stephen Curry and a trip across the country into the opponent’s backyard to make it happen.
And the opponent was one of those Big East/Big Ten/Big 12/Big Deal schools the conference tournament champs, no less – with muscles on top of their muscles?
And the double-digit seed thing – did that get mentioned?
If you knew all that, you know the rest – the Zags are matriculating into the class of 32 in the NCAA basketball tournament by virtue of a 68-52 takedown of sixth-seeded Seton Hall in a gruesome beauty at the Pepsi Center.
Hey, this wasn’t survive and advance. This was a snuffing.
Allow the Zags a we-told-you-so.
“Man, we heard all week how tough Seton Hall was,” said coach Mark Few, “and they were really, really tough. But so are we.”
Really. The team that was pretty much left for dead in late February, the team that couldn’t win the big one to that point, the team with no depth, no late-game grit, no killer gene. Even with the bum vibe that dogged them all winter, Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd offered this ray of optimism:
“We’ve just got to keep our head down and find a way to get to the tournament,” he said back in February. “Because with preparation and good performances, I feel we can win games there – multiple games. We have the pieces to do it, and it’s the kind of year you’re not going to be overwhelmed by anybody.”
Yeah, but did anyone figure it would the Bulldogs doing the overwhelming?
There were an accumulation of hints, of course. The end-of-season win at BYU. The run through the West Coast Conference tournament – as good as a Gonzaga team has played in Las Vegas, and in tense, high-wire games. And even the first half against the Pirates, who were relentless in a three-game surge through the Big East tournament that included wins over Top 5 tenants Xavier and Villanova.
The Zags chiseled out a 35-25 halftime lead even with Kyle Wiltjer on the bench with two fouls – because their defense hassled the Hall into missing its last 15 shots.
“We kept getting stops,” said Few. “Our first-shot defense was off the charts – about the only way they had success in the first half was either off turnovers or second shots.”
No one had it tougher than Isaiah Whitehead, the Hall’s hard-scrabble sophomore guard and the Big East tournament MVP. With Eric McClellan and then Silas Melson chasing him, with lots of gap help and Domantas Sabonis the vertical sentry at the rim, Whitehead made just 1 of 11 shots in the first half.
“I think the common theme was just making it tough,” said Wiltjer.
Not that Whitehead got discouraged. By game’s end, the math had grown to an unattractive 4 of 24 – 10 of those empty 3-pointers. It was Hero Basketball 101 – often settling for 3s he seemed to hope would erase a double-digit deficit in one or two strokes.
“You going to get him to defer?” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, when asked if he should have taken the car keys away. “He’s been our guy all year.”
But the most impressive element of this Gonzaga win was the Bulldogs’ demeanor when things weren’t so impressive.
Most of those involved turnovers – 20 in all, and in all varieties. And when they started to pile up, the Hall was able to shave the deficit down to six points, 54-48, with 6 1/2 minutes to play.
This had been zero hour for the Zags in high-level games all season – well, until the last three weeks – when they didn’t respond. This time, they kept their heads – finding Sabonis in the post for a couple tough-guy buckets (and with 21 points and 16 rebounds, he was the toughest guy out there), making just enough free throws, burying the Pirates on the glass and getting those stops.
Preparation and performance. At their historic best, Bulldogs coaches and players validate one another.
Especially as double-digit seeds. The Zags are 5-2 in that role during the Zagmania era, and put yet another notch on the collective belt of NCAA 11th seeds. With Wichita State blasting Arizona on Thursday, 11s have now won 14 of the last 26 games against six seeds.
And for the eighth straight NCAA tournament, the Zags are first-round winners – a streak matched only by Kansas.
“These are streaks that look impossible when you look back at them,” Few marveled. “Eighteen straight NCAAs and now eight straight wins in the first round is pretty special stuff.”
In the context of a season once on the brink, this one will look as special as any of them.
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