PROVO, Utah – On a day when everyone wanted to fly college basketball’s flag at half-staff, the Gonzaga Bulldogs went through the routine of raising another – all the way up.
Another all their own.
Actually, the only routine part is the mere fact of it. Nineteen times in 21 years, the Zags have been regular-season champions of the West Coast Conference. Sixteen of those were won outright – a peculiar conceit in a program that has earned it, and others.
All have been special – undefeated runs, last-weekend rescues, you name it.
This one had a little something else. A little neener-neener.
Also an exclamation point.
A fulsome 18,987 witnesses squeezed into the Marriott Center on Saturday and the Zags chased a bunch of them out early, along with the Brigham Young Cougars – the 79-65 final score only hinting at Gonzaga’s command in a complete performance, though it was the smothering second-half defense that broke the home team.
“I think it was a statement,” point guard Josh Perkins said.
Truly, but it was something else, too. Call it a double-takeout, in the parlance of the latest Olympic mania – the Zags pushing the Cougars from the house and in the process freezing out Saint Mary’s, which still held some hope of a tie atop the standings.
You may remember that the Gaels were the unanimous choice of the league’s coaches to win it all.
The Zags certainly do.
“(The coaching staff) truly doesn’t put any stock in that,” coach Mark Few insisted, “but I think the kids did.”
Turns out it was the worst thing that could have happened to the Gaels.
“I have never,” guard Silas Melson said, “heard of a team coming off the national championship game getting picked second in its league.”
Oh, surely it’s happened somewhere – out in the ACC or Big Ten – but then you’d be talking about leagues that don’t carry the same king around in a sedan chair nearly every year. And, yes, the Gaels had almost the whole roster back and the Zags lost 62 percent of their scoring and more than half their rebounds to graduation and the NBA.
“I just know we had pieces back – J3, me, Si, Killian, Rui – that contributed to last year’s team,” Perkins reasoned, “and I just felt we deserved to be picked to win it. We weren’t, which is fine. Pick who you want, but at the end of the day, you’ll see who the No. 1 seed is in Vegas.”
But though the Bulldogs won their last 11 with carrying this steamer trunk of a grudge, it was no boat race. More than a few wins came hard. Just Thursday night at San Diego, in fact, the Zags resembled the high-wire walker racing to the nearest rooftop with his balance pole before plummeting to the street below.
This, however, was the best of the Zags. The stifling defense that’s capable of taking them to another level – poor Elijah Bryant is 6 of 28 against GU in two games. Perkins with deep daggers to close the first half and open the second. Johnathan Williams with dunks that don’t lie. The ensemble offense – six players cracking double figures, just as they’d averaged most of the season.
“And they’re fine with that, which is cool,” Few said. “That shows character and a winning spirit when there’s a lot of selfish spirits out there in the world of basketball right now.”
That may or may not have been referencing the coach-agent-shoe company-player-FBI moneydrama that is producing hand wringing and punch lines in bulk. Arizona coach Sean Miller got swept up in the scandal this weekend, purportedly caught by a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to secure freshman whiz DeAndre Ayton.
It’s sordid and sad, and it’s mostly still the wrong people getting the money.
“I think everybody needs to pause for a second and take a deep breath before we rush to judgment,” said Few, who counts Miller as a friend, “and see what really is the truth.”
Away from the headlines, the Zags found their own truth – Saturday night and all season. Think of it: 27-4, ranked sixth in the nation. Final Four a year ago or, this was no gimme.
“It really turned into kind of a quest,” Few said, “where you had to dig deep, but you also had to concentrate and not screw up somewhere else. It was keeping your eye on the prize, but in the present moment, too, and not have one of those other teams come up and bite you. Our guys were really mature and deserve all the credit.”
“OK, that’s something I wouldn’t have called them a lot earlier,” Few laughed. “But their approach was mature. Some of those games we had, we really had to step up and perform.”
This night, it was performance art. There’s a trophy that says so.
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