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Blanchette: Zags’ long, strange trip comes to abrupt end, now intrigue begins

Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis is surrounded by Syracuse defenders Tyler Roberson (21) and Tyler Lydon (20) in the second half on Friday, March 25, 2016, at the United Center in Chicago. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

CHICAGO – So Gonzaga’s off-season begins much as this basketball season did, in a cocoon of intrigue.

Or doesn’t anyone remember all the mystery about how Mark Few was going to get Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer on the floor at the same time?

Such a quaint notion. Does that seem like 18 years ago or what?

But then, this was the season the Bulldogs made folks forget about a lot of things.

What will be remembered – even as it all came to an unsatisfactory end Friday night at the United Center – is how these Zags cobbled together, at the 11th hour, an identity out of trust, determination and a deaf ear to the din that they weren’t good enough.

It will be said again after the Bulldogs came up short, 63-60, in their Sweet 16 war with Syracuse in the NCAA tournament – a game there for the winning, as they acknowledged, that slipped away in a sleet storm of turnovers, rebounds surrendered and, finally, a runner by Josh Perkins that the Orange’s Tyler Lydon swatted away with two seconds to play.

“It sucks – that was a winnable game and we lost,” said forward Kyle Wiltjer. “This is going to hurt for a while.”

And that it got away in the fashion of those high-profile losses in December, January and February will increase the sting – and the noise – given how the Zags had overcome those tendencies in March.

In this one, the Bulldogs had a nine-point lead with 6:28 to play and never made another field goal – unless you count the 3-pointer Perkins made in transition that was waved off because the officials had granted GU a timeout a tick or so earlier.

That was right after the Orange had taken a 61-60 lead on Michael Gbinije’s put-back with 22 seconds to play out of loose-ball scrum that saw all sorts of bodies hit the deck – Syracuse’s sixth offensive rebound in the last two minutes.

Those second chances, the two ugly turnovers against the Orange press and Wiltjer’s missed 2-on-1 banker when the Zags did break it were all plays they’d love to have back.

“We knew they’d trap the heck out of us when we got down,” said Few, “but we kept ending up with spot inbounds – you can’t run – and that made it even harder. And we didn’t handle it as well as we could have.”

As opposed to the struggles of the season, which – in review – the Zags couldn’t have handled better.

“Are you kidding me?” said Few. “We’ve never had a team show this much courage, heart and toughness – and basically shove it up naysayers’ rear ends. And they stayed positive through all that crap.”

Sure, it was the Zags’ own failures that had them in the position of having to win three elimination games at their conference tournament just to be get here, and their long growth arc that exacerbated the angst.

But they were nails when they needed to be – until the final six minutes this night.

And no one stood taller through it all than GU’s two big men, Wiltjer and Sabonis – who once again carried the Zags this night with 42 of the 60 points. That was another flashback to the struggles of midseason, however.

“We’ve been through it all,” said Perkins. “We started at the top, fell to the bottom, but we stuck together and went through the fire. It’s tough to end here, but we have a lot to be proud of – and we’re proud of each other.”

And, in time, they’ll be ready to relish the memory.

“It was the best time of my life these last two months,” said senior Eric McClellan. “Just going through it, finding ways to stick with it, staying confident, having fun. It was such a blast – I’ll remember this the rest of my life.

“Nothing’s better than March Madness. Not the NBA Finals, not the Super Bowl. Nothing better. And I know to a man we’ve never taken this for granted.”

And the intrigue? Well, it starts again now.

Three seniors – Wiltjer, McClellan and Kyle Dranginis – will depart for certain. A fourth – Karnowski – may as well, though he’s eligible for a medical redshirt after losing his year to a back injury if he’s so inclined.

And, of course, Sabonis likely accelerated up the on-ramp to early entry into NBA with his play in this tournament especially.

To that uncertain churn add no fewer than eight new faces – redshirting transfers Nigel Williams-Goss, Jonathan Williams III and Jeremy Jones – and a freshman recruiting class of five disparate and much-anticipated talents.

“We’ll be a scary team next year,” Perkins predicted.

This year, they survived the scare – the streak of NCAA appearances not just preserved, but another Sweet 16 improbably added. In process made sure they’d never be a disparaging footnote.

No, they won’t forget the journey. Or the way it ended.