PORTLAND – All grown up?
OK, maybe not quite.
Besides, puppies are cuter, right? Except maybe when they’re chewing up the linoleum or committing other acts of guileless badness.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs will have some moments like that this season. But they will be irresistible, too, to their legion – a massive subset of which piled into the Moda Center on Friday night, making it a Kennel away from the Kennel. (The night before, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann expressed surprise that his team wound up at a virtual Zags home game, meaning he could use extra assistant coaches to prepare scouting reports both in geography and contemporary college basketball history.)
Anyway, back to the irresistible, which delightfully ebbed but mostly flowed all game long in a 111-105 double overtime loss to No. 7-ranked Florida in the PK80 Invitational – or was it an NCAA regional final?
Say what you want about March Madness, but there’s nirvana to be found in November, too.
Many thought the PK80 might have exhausted its supply of that in the afternoon, when Duke roared back on Texas from 16 points and – with five freshmen on the floor – outlasted the Longhorns in overtime.
That was the C squad game compared to Gonzaga-Florida.
In fact, can we agree now that this is all the resume either team needs come Selection Sunday if they’re in the market for an at-large berth?
That the Zags eventually blinked in the second overtime – Josh Perkins and Killian Tillie both on the bench with five fouls being a significant factor – matters little, except as it’s measured in Gonzaga’s own disappointment.
This was a winnable moment, yes, but the Zags’ consolation prize was valuable, too: identity.
It’s not as if these guys have felt they’ve been living in the shadow of Gonzaga’s Final Four/national runners-up team of a year ago. The holdover regulars have insisted from the beginning that they loved being part of that history and intended on writing some of their own. The newcomers and guys whose roles have grown many-fold are ready to be part of it.
Now maybe the rest of us will let them.
If they’re still growing into the lockdown steadiness their predecessors had in abundance, they have every other qualities – not the least of which is their own brand of grit that allowed them to absorb nearly all of Florida’s hits and deliver their own nearly on demand.
The biggest regret of the night was probably that Silas Melson – playing in his hometown – wasn’t able to summon the storybook heroics. He was stuck taking an off-balance 15-footer at the end of regulation, and missed a free throw (for a three-point play) that could have won the hour with 1.8 seconds left in the first overtime.
He was also the guy that made the nervy drive to the hoop that tied the game again after Florida’s Chris Chiozza appeared to have won it with a three-point play of his own, a splendid crossover that put Perkins out of the game.
But the Zags will not lack for game-night heroes this season.
Not as long as Johnathan Williams has a uniform.
The 6-foot-9 senior forward staged one of the finest exhibitions in Zags history – 39 points, 12 rebounds, 16-of-22 shooting – and the numbers were in some ways the least of it.
When the Zags fell behind in the first half and Florida’s ridiculous long-range shooting threatened permanent damage, it was Williams who reeled off eight straight points to propel the Bulldogs into a lead. When the Gators staged another surge in the second half, it was Williams – with drives to the hoop and his hook working like magic – who kept the Bulldogs close until the posse got some fresh horses.
In the end, what did in the Zags was exactly what everyone feared – the 3-point shot. The Gators may be the best practioners of it in college basketball this season, and certainly the most willing. They made 13 in the first half alone of their Thursday rout of Stanford, and though the Zags did a marvelous job of smothering Florida’s leading scorer Egor Koulechov, they could not contend with Jalen Hudson – a one-time role player at Virginia Tech who is this year’s college hoops microwave.
He would make 8 of 12 from beyond the arc, and teammates Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen were nearly as deadly. In all the Gators made 17 of 36.
The Bulldogs now have a day to refuel before facing Texas on Sunday morning – maybe a harder chore than swallowing this particular setback.
But it’s all a part of growing up. The Zags are getting a handle on that.
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