PROVO, Utah – Even the most unforgiving of teachers didn’t throw you an exam on the first day after you’d been moved up a grade.
Not one that counted toward your final grade, anyway.
But for the longest time Thursday night, this didn’t look like much of a test.
Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe it’s just that the Zags have spent all season studying just in case there was a pop quiz to accompany their elevation to the head of the college basketball class.
Before the analogy gets abused further – and it likely will – perhaps the scoreboard should be consulted:
See, no test at … wait, did you hear about the part when the lead went from 16 points to six with 2 minutes to play, and with seemingly every Zag having four fouls, and with another shot rolling off the rim? And with the howling mob of 18,987 – wedged to the rafters – sensing the head of No. 1 ready for mounting on the Marriott Center wall?
You know, the scary Zags part?
Now, the record will show that at that point, one play – one final, game-saving play – bailed out the Zags, Przemek Karnowski fighting off BYU’s Eric Mika for an offensive rebound. That seemed to take the final fight out of the Cougars – surely it sapped their sense of when to foul and stop the clock – and the Bulldogs built their lead back to double digits at the free-throw line.
Masking a bit just how hard they had to work for their 23rd straight victory.
But that was just the last life ring a Zag would toss to his teammates – and no one this night tossed more than Nigel Williams-Goss.
The Zags have been the game’s ultimate ensemble all season, but there’s no doubt that in the last few weeks the junior guard has established himself as the Go-To Guy among all the go-to guys. The affirmation came this night.
Once the Cougars – down 19 points late in the first half, and 17 early in the second – reeled off nine straight points to pull inside of 10 points, Williams-Goss put it in overdrive.
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He scored nine straight points in a stretch of 98 seconds. He scored 24 of Gonzaga’s last 32. He drilled a long 3-pointer when BYU had again cut the lead to eight points with 4:50 left, and a runner at the 3:00 mark that suggested, “Enough.”
At one point, when a fan courtside bobbled a box of popcorn and the spillage stopped play, Williams-Goss grabbed the broom from the arena worker and helped tidy up.
He pops the popcorn. He cleans it up. Alas, there was no sighting of him selling the stuff at halftime.
“The kid is just a winner,” coach Mark Few said. “A flat-out winner. Obviously, this is when you need him – on a big stage, in a really tough environment, hitting a bunch of adversity. And he really stepped up when we needed him.”
Indeed, nobody passed the test quite like Williams-Goss – 33 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals. The last three numbers were just for extra credit.
“I just tried to assert myself,” he said. “We had a few possessions when we weren’t getting good shots, and Josh (Perkins) and the other guys told me to be aggressive, so I tried to do what I could.”
That was usually splitting through the Cougars’ junked-up 1-3-1 zone for runners and spinners, with a few fast-break streaks thrown in. Busting up that swarming zone was vital. The Cougars had looked marshmallow soft during a 15-2 Gonzaga run that broke things open in the first half, but their defensive rotations improved markedly after intermission, and the zone choked off the Zags’ rhythm.
“It’s kind of intimidating because everybody’s running at you,” Perkins said. “They fly around. But if you stay aggressive, you’ll see the holes.”
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There were others. The Zags overpowered BYU 47-34 on the boards, Karnowski’s being only the biggest.
No, they didn’t ace every subject. The 14 turnovers felt more like 24 and there were too many fouls and too many missed foul shots.
“We hit some adversity,” Few said. “But we didn’t cave. We weren’t perfect, but you’re not going to be perfect in a high-possession game like this.”
It went without saying that the newly anointed No. 1s needed a challenge, and possibly it’s still true – protecting 19-point leads is probably not what the nation of doubters had in mind. Still …
“It’s always a challenge coming into this atmosphere,” Perkins said, “but really, the challenge for us is just staying with it – being ready no matter who’s set in front of us.”
Because a lot of nights, they’re going to have to think of the test questions themselves.
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