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John Blanchette: Madness in Maui gives Gonzaga first test of its season against Illinois

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 20, 2018

LAHAINA, Hawaii – Giorgi Bezhanishvili is a University of Illinois freshman from Georgia – the one wedged between Turkey and Russia, not between Florida and Bubba – via Austria and a New Jersey high school. Somewhere in the pronunciation of his name, you can extract the word “bashful,” which he is decidedly not.

Early in Monday’s nightcap of the Maui Invitational, the 6-foot-9 post made a theatrical up fake at the top of the key that sent fellow freshman Filip Petrusev of Gonzaga soaring near the Duke banner in the rafters of Lahaina Civic Center. Bezhanishvili then summoned an Uber for a trip to the basket.

Any embarrassment, however, was short-lived. Minutes later, Petrusev was working over the Illini on the offensive glass for a spell.

“You walk out here,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few on tournament eve, “and you get exposed – and we all will. Even Duke.”

Well, that remains to be seen.

The Blue Devils are 16-0 in this cozy and cacophonous bunker, and while not all of them have been as easy as their beatdown of San Diego State on Monday, 16-0 covers up the ol’ emperor pretty well against even a child’s honest eyes.

And the Zags?

Well, they’re the ones strolling down on Front Street wearing barrels supported by suspenders.

But they’ll settle for their 84-78 victory over the Illini and will try to bundle up a little better for the semifinal parade with Arizona on Tuesday evening.

The Maui’s anointment as the swellest of the swell exempt, 3-day, exotic-locale basketball carnivals is well-deserved what with the Nos. 1, 2 and 8-ranked teams involved, plus assorted other gnarlies.

It is, however, November.

Sometimes the ball transcends the calendar – think the Zags and Michigan State here in 2005, which they should consider replaying on loop in the concession lobby. But more often, not.

More often, as Few noted, you get exposed.

On this night, what especially exposed the Zags was an extreme dysfunction with, well, ball security. Not that the Illini’s combative pressure isn’t a pain – Evansville and Georgetown turned it over a combined 46 times in two previous games. But among the Bulldogs’ 22 turnovers – including 12 by point guards Josh Perkins and Geno Crandall – were many that were just bad decisions or overamped eagerness.

“When you’re strong with it and you do get through that wave, you shoot a high percentage at the end,” Few said. “It’s a high-risk defense and they put it on you sometimes and put you in some very uncomfortable positions. And they’ve played two possessions of 1-3-1 this year and they jumped in that and we made some really poor decisions.”

But then, the November tournament trail is full of these high-stakes fistfights with some wince-worthy moments – and few pearls, too.

For the Zags, the pearls mostly happened after halftime. Though they also found a big diamond in Jeremy Jones.

The Bulldogs’ unassuming utilityman responded to his team’s foul trouble both up front and on the wing by topping his career high with 12 points in the first half alone. Plus seven rebounds. Plus his usual solid defense.

Yes, Jeremy Jones. Eleven-points-in -GU’s-first-three-games Jeremy Jones.

Of course, you could posit that some exposure was going on here, too – exposure of the Illini’s scouting report. On most of Jones’ points, any Illinois defenders were a Lanai ferry ride away. Except that with all the ways to get burned by the Bulldogs, aren’t you going to take your chances with a role player with a modest resume?

In any event, Jones staked the Zags to a seven-point halftime lead and then the Bulldogs helped themselves to more – the margin reaching as many as 13. But then they didn’t make enough free throws and then they didn’t play enough defense and then it all fell apart.

Melted down, rather.

Beyond the frightful turnover issues, the Bulldogs had only marginal success defending the 3 – indeed, a 4-point play by Trent Frazier on a Perkins foul with 61 seconds remaining made it far more interesting that in should have been, even given the Illinois comeback before.

But then, they also forced an air-ball 3 by Frazier and Brandon Clarke blocked another when needed. And they shot 53 percent. And they had Jeremy Jones, who not only was spectacular in the first half but got the rebound and made the two foul shots that saved their souls – all a part of an eye-popping double-double.

“That’s the story you root for,” Few said.

And if you’re going to see yourself exposed – especially near game’s end – all you can really root for is survival.

“With Chaminade not being in this year, there’s potentially a team that walks out of here 0-3 that’s an NCAA tournament team,” Few said. “You have to take the positives and lessons out of this and not let it beat you up too bad.”

Call it Maui Madness. Who needs March?

Follow along with the Zags

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