LAS VEGAS – The wins came one after another.
Eighty- and 90-point nights were routine on the offensive end. Opponents rarely cracked the 60-point barrier.
Reserves logged extended minutes in the blowouts with starters waving towels and celebrating every basket on the bench. Smiles all around.
For 2 1/2 months, Gonzaga stacked up stress-free, double-digit wins. After 21 in a row from Dec. 7 to Feb. 23, the Zags finally found themselves in a close game.
The results weren’t pretty. Gonzaga lacked poise, missed free throws, turned the ball over and broke down on the defensive end. BYU did just the opposite, and Gonzaga’s unbeaten record went by the wayside in the regular-season finale.
And those gnawing questions hung over the Zags: Have they been battled-tested enough? What would happen the next time GU faced a similar situation?
The Zags provided some answers in the WCC Tournament, dealing with an assortment of challenges and coming up with three wins and the championship trophy at the Orleans Arena.
“It was playing with poise and being a lot smarter,” guard Silas Melson said. “We took care of the ball in latter part of every game. We utilized the bonus (at the free-throw line) and on the defensive end we got big stops.”
Heavy underdog Pacific surprisingly hung with Gonzaga for a half before the Zags put the hammer down Saturday. Heavy underdog Santa Clara was within five points at the two-minute mark until Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins buried 3-point daggers Monday.
No. 19 Saint Mary’s escaped a 21-point halftime deficit in a hurry Tuesday. By the midpoint of the second half, Gonzaga’s lead was down to 51-46. The Zags silenced the Gaels’ comeback with a 13-2 run, sparked by Williams-Goss, Melson, Collins and Przemek Karnowski.
“We’ve done a better job since (BYU) of taking care of the ball, getting good shots and finishing out plays on the defensive end,” Williams-Goss said. “I feel like this (tournament) was good prep for us.”
At the final buzzer, it looked like just another Gonzaga rout, 74-56, but it was far from it in those first 10 minutes of the second half.
“I personally turned the ball over in that (BYU) game in the last seconds, something that shouldn’t happen at the point guard position,” sophomore guard Josh Perkins said. “We got Pacific’s best shot, we got Santa Clara’s best. For us to get shots down the stretch, take care of ball and do things on our terms, it speaks that we learned from our experiences (against BYU). That’s what you pride yourself in as a basketball player.”
Perkins has nothing against 30-point wins, but he acknowledged the Zags needed to feel the heat in the closing minutes, when every possession takes on added importance.
“It’s March, you know you’re going to get (the opposing) team’s best every time,” he said. “For this to happen, we’re battled-tested now. I think this is the year we can go deep into the (NCAA) tournament.”
That remains to be seen, but the Zags enter March Madness feeling better prepared for crunch-time situations.
“The best part about BYU is we learned from it,” Melson said. “We watched a lot of film, we looked ourselves in the mirror. We learned and grew from it throughout this whole tourney.”