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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga players express thanks for chance to play as close-knit unit

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said that his 2015-16 team was as good as any he’s had during the late stages of the season. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said that his 2015-16 team was as good as any he’s had during the late stages of the season. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

CHICAGO – It was a bitter season-ending loss for Gonzaga and the realization that it was the last time this resilient team would suit up together didn’t make it any easier.

“I’m just grateful,” said guard Kyle Dranginis, one of three seniors. “It’s sad it has to come to an end, but I’m just proud of this team and lucky to be part of a lot of so many great teams.

“So I’m kind of looking on the bright side and I just enjoyed the journey. I’m thinking about the journey we had together and how far we came.”

The journey ended with a 63-60 loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 Friday at the United Center, snapping a seven-game winning streak that secured Gonzaga’s 18th consecutive NCAA tournament berth and the program’s seventh trip to the Sweet 16.

Gonzaga dealt with the loss of center Przemek Karnowski to a season-ending back surgery, spotty guard play at times and deflating defeats in which double-digit leads melted away in the second half. The Zags dropped four home games, their most since losing four at the Martin Centre in the 1990-91 season.

But they came together when it mattered the most, winning at BYU in the regular-season finale to earn a piece of the WCC regular-season title and riding that momentum to three conference tournament wins and routs over Seton Hall and Utah.

Gonzaga had Syracuse on the ropes, leading 57-48 with 6 minutes, 25 seconds remaining, but couldn’t land a knockout punch. Senior Kyle Wiltjer (23 points) and sophomore Domantas Sabonis (19 points, 17 rebounds) put up huge numbers, a routine occurrence this season.

“They delivered night in and night out, through double-teams and face-guarding,” coach Mark Few said. “The whole group down the stretch was as good as any group we’ve ever had. And then when you factor in what they had to put up with, it’s better. I’ve never seen anybody step up and just deliver with all that stuff going on.

“I told them that.”

Freshman point guard Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan had an emotional embrace in the locker room about 30 minutes after the final buzzer.

“What we’ve been through this year and the relationships we’ve built,” Perkins said. “I love these dudes and they’re my brothers for life. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play with them and I wish ‘Wiltj’ the best for next year.”

The Zags lose the three seniors and possibly much more. Karnowski is optimistic he’ll be able to continue his career, but he hasn’t decided if it will be in a Gonzaga uniform or professionally. He’s eligible for a medical redshirt. Sabonis had three more double-doubles in the tournament, no doubt elevating his draft stock. He hasn’t announced his intentions.

“We’ve grown so much as a unit and individually,” said McClellan, who didn’t play in the final 14:41 as the coaching staff went with Silas Melson. “Being a competitor you’re disappointed and you never want it to end like this, but I’m extremely proud of my guys.”

Dranginis agreed.

“Toughest team I’ve ever played on, with everything we had to deal with throughout the year and making such a special run with these guys,” he said. “We just battled all year. We battled again tonight, we just didn’t come out with the win.”

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