MORAGA, Calif. – Well, that was awkward.
For Saint Mary’s, anyway.
College basketball’s ultimate sardine can – McKeon Pavilion – was stoked for a coronation Saturday night, and best of all it was going to come at the expense of Gonzaga, overlords of the realm. The atmosphere was sticky with that kind of anticipation – the home team on the brink of its first jump into the Top 10, riding 19 straight victories and already having stolen a win on the Bulldogs’ floor. Another would put them two games ahead in the West Coast Conference standings with two weekends to play, a technical knockout if not the real thing.
Come Monday, then, it’ll be the Zags in the Top 10. And, yes, trying to recalibrate for some hard work still ahead.
“But right now?” guard Josh Perkins said. “Very content.”
Every Zag earned that right after a 76-63 blistering of the Gaels, No. 12 “upsetting” No. 11 in the polls not by virtue of simply winning – GU’s done a fair amount of that here – but by the fashion in which it was accomplished, the point spread 22 when the clock dipped under eight minutes to play, the Gaels so flustered that at one point their bell cow, Jock Landale, had to call timeout to deal with yet another double-team.
But in some respects, no one earned his contentment more than Perkins.
It was Perkins who felt he had to answer for Gonzaga’s 74-71 slip-up against the Gaels in Spokane last month – a 1-of-9 shooting performance and some questionable choices, including a well-guarded air-ball 3-pointer to tie with about 10 seconds to go when teammate Zach Norvell Jr. had slipped off a flare screen and was open in the corner.
His many critics out there weren’t saying anything he wasn’t thinking already.
But this time, he gave them a different reason to talk amongst themselves.
Yes, Rui Hachimura was the monster who put the Zags on his back – and the Gaels down on theirs. Jonathan Williams did his warrior thing. Norvell was a smooth, fiercely efficient assassin.
Josh Perkins managed.
It’s the most important thing he can do.
“He did great in a really tough environment against a really tough team,” coach Mark Few said. “He did a fantastic job of just managing the game and taking care of the ball and stepping up and hitting timely shots. Played good defense, too.”
He was relaxed, directed and detailed, and there wasn’t a Zag who didn’t reflect the same.
You saw it in his 3-pointer that opened the game – triggering that remarkable 22-5 start. You saw it in the passes that found Norvell and Melson for the game-breaking 3s. You saw it especially in the nervy 13-foot baseline jumper he buried with the Gaels trying like crazy to piece together a late run.
“I felt good,” Perkins said. “The coaches did a great job of helping me not overthink this game. Take the open shot. Don’t press. We have a lot of pieces. Get them all involved and let them do their thing.”
And, above all, remember that loss back in Spokane – but for the right reasons.
“We led that thing in Spokane for 35 minutes,” Few noted. “The guys were upset and disappointed we didn’t finish it off. That was on their minds.”
And not just the disappointment.
“We came here confident,” Perkins said, “because the only thing we didn’t do up there was close it out like we should.”
Well, no, the Zags did more. Any defense that limits the prolific Landale to four measly shots and essentially chases the conference’s most relentless assist machine, Emmett Naar, from the premises is a rodeo with a lot of lassoes a-twirl.
“You need five guys to stop Landale,” Zags guard Silas Melson said. “He deserves that respect.”
So do the Zags. Fourteen Top 25 teams lost this week. It wasn’t that the Bulldogs came in and took SMC’s best shot in one of the West’s nastier climes, they hit and hit again before the Gaels could even think to hit back.
“They came in with a desperate mindset,” SMC coach Randy Bennett said.
Gonzaga still has the tougher road to the WCC title – the end-of-season roadies at San Diego and BYU being the most fretful. The Gaels finish with four of the bottom five teams.
But today the NCAA selection committee releases its conversational trial balloon, the top 16 seeds by its reckoning at this moment. The Zags deserve to be part of that conversation.
They have regrouped once again over this last month, plugging through some hard-fought, if artless, wins. Often it was awkward. Surely it would have been had they lost here.
Instead, they were spectacular.
Redemption, no matter how temporary, fires the soul.
Just ask Josh Perkins.