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Blanchette: Gonzaga turns aggressive in second half to reveal the Zags of first 29 games

LAS VEGAS – Did a little research into how the Gonzaga Bulldogs bounced back this season after dropping a tough one and … couldn’t find a thing.

Oh, wait. Here it is. They won 29 in a row after losing their last game.

So not bad. Just 28 to go to keep up that average.

Only they won’t get there like that.

But maybe like this.

That, as in the most unsightly first half of offensive basketball the Bulldogs have played all season, or maybe in several – a toddler’s fingerpainting of a dust storm. It had the heavily pro-Zag house at Orleans Arena ready to draft John Stockton – being introduced at intermission for his induction into the West Coast Conference Hall of Honor – to suit up for the second half.

Which is when the Zags turned that into this – a 82-50 pasting of Pacific in the quarterfinals of the WCC Tournament, and a 6 p.m. date in Monday’s semis against Santa Clara.

This looked nothing like, ugh, that.

This: The Bulldogs you’ve seen and marveled at mostly all season. The Bulldogs who on Saturday night became the first team in the nation to 30 wins.

That: the nightmare scenario. One of the presumptive No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament going down in flames in the first weekend.

You can’t say it didn’t cross people’s minds as they watched the Bulldogs’ shooting percentage bottom out near 30 percent in the first half, as the Zags once took 12 trips down the floor and came up with a single basket, as even the big lefty who paints the corners — Przemek Karnowski – wild-pitched two out of bounds. All this against a team that lost 21 games in the regular season.

The only way the Zags were passing the eye test on this one was if the audience was blindfolded.

For Gonzaga’s sake, however, the game is played on both ends of the floor. And on the other end, the Zags were “fantastic,” as Few put it, and he may have been understating it.

Still, the feeling was an uneasy one.

“I sensed everybody was on edge tonight,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson acknowledged .

From the BYU dreamcrusher? The Senior Night bummer? The higher stakes of the postseason?

“Everything,” he said. “Coming off a loss, you have to sit a whole week. You don’t have that usual midweek Thursday game. And then in a one-and-done postseason tournament, it all builds up and comes to a head.”

As Pacific continued to hang tough through the first half, the Bulldogs’ frustration became visible. And there was only one way to release it.

“Aggression,” said guard Jordan Mathews.

Nigel Williams-Goss had that idea with two bold, nervy drives to close the first half, one for a three-point play. Then Mathews himself made a passing-lane read in transition defense and turned it into his own layup and foul in the first minute of the second half, and it was if the Zags had shed the bank-safe overcoats they’d been wearing.

“If we have problems, it’s because we lack aggression,” Mathews said. “Turn up the heat. The most aggressive teams usually get the calls and turn teams over. If you’re aggressive, good things happen.”

Like 68 percent of your shots going in. And all those free throws they missed against BYU. And the defense, if anything, getting better – of special note there, Johnathan Williams III shutting out Pacific’s Jack Williams, who hurt GU with 16 points in their last meeting, in the second half.

“The defense has been there at some point every night all season, and that’s amazing for 31 games,” Michaelson said. “Tonight it was there every possession. That’s different from last year’s team or even the one a couple years ago. If we weren’t clicking on offense we could be in trouble – and that’s about as bad an offensive half as we’ve had in a couple years.”

There were bonuses in the big surge. Mathews’ first 20-point night of the season – 22, actually, all but two in the second half. And the return of Killian Tillie, his hand still bandaged and braced to protect the finger broken two weeks ago. He only played 6 minutes, but his impact made it seem like a full 40.

“He’s a problem solver,” Few said.

Watching the first half suggested the Zags have problems to solve – and they’re less likely to survive that kind of stink-up against a better team. But, the fact is, it’s still Gonzaga that poses the problems.

“There’s an attrition when you play us,” Few said. “We’re just going to keep coming at you and coming at you, and you don’t have as many bigs as we have and eventually the dam breaks. The dam just broke a little later tonight.”

After a little of that, and a lot of this.

Follow along with the Zags

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