SALT LAKE CITY – We took their temperature, over and over. We wondered if the Gonzaga Bulldogs had really kicked that bad case of influenza WCC that laid them low in Las Vegas.
We saw the impossible happen a year ago when a 16 seed finally took a big, bad No. 1 deep after striking out 138 times in the NCAA Tournament, and supposed there was no law of averages saying it couldn’t happen in consecutive at-bats.
Plus, there was plucky Fairleigh Dickinson and the hardscrabble Jersey guy coach and, well, it’s really not hard to manufacture slivers of doubt if you try hard enough.
But all anyone really needed to do in advance of the Zags’ 87-49 first-round wipeout was read between the lines.
“You know, they’re like a good, solid WCC team,” Zags assistant coach Tommy Lloyd pointed out on the opener’s eve, “which we’ve played a lot and had good battles with. It’ll have our guys’ attention.”
Doh. Now we get it.
On 16 evenings this winter, the Bulldogs took the best the West Coast Conference has offered collectively in years and made it look like the worst – winning by an average of 27 points a game, a WCC record and the best in Division I in at least two decades.
Problem was, all anyone wanted to remember was Gonzaga’s last game – the Vegas tournament crap-out against Saint Mary’s that nearly cost the Bulldogs their spot on the bracket’s top line – and concoct a hangover that wasn’t there.
“As soon as that game was over, we put it behind us,” senior guard Josh Perkins insisted.
C’mon. That clunker?
“That’s what competitors do,” he said. “That’s what people with confidence do. Unfortunately, we got asked about it more than we wanted to.”
It was as if the 33rd game of Gonzaga’s season somehow undid the identity and mien they’d built through the first 32 – though, yes, coach Mark Few’s pointed reminders in the can’t-play-like-that-again-and-survive vein goosed along the narrative.
So the Zags played dazzlingly better.
“I don’t know who in America would play Gonzaga and beat them tonight,” FDU coach Greg Herenda offered.
Just not his team and not this night. So tough was the going that Nitro the Knight popped his top in a mascot dance-off with Gonzaga’s Spike – not as grisly a horse beheading as in “The Godfather” but just as symbolic.
As Jersey combos go, the E Street Band is deeper than the Knights – mostly a five-piece outfit, and one coming off an emotional First Four win and cross country flight in the last 48 hours. So the Zags made them work a little harder at altitude with a token press in the backcourt and something decidedly more than token in the half court. That started with Zach Norvell Jr.’s smothering work on FDU’s Darnell Edge, a 48 percent 3-point shooter who was 1 of 5 this night and didn’t score until the Knights were already 21 points down in what had already become their play-out game.
“You let a guy see a few go in and you might be in for a long night,” guard Geno Crandall said. “Zach did a great job of taking away his space and I tried to do the same thing when I came in, and so did Jeremy (Jones), Corey (Kispert) and Perk. That’s the thing with us. You’re going to see different guys who all defend well.”
On the other end, the Zags were back to their high-octane tricks – no one more so than Killian Tillie, whose best game of his injury-marbled year was punctuated with a soaring dunk that astonished even his teammates.
“If we didn’t get in trouble for celebrating,” Perkins said, “I probably would have taken my shirt off.”
Surely, the Zags deserved to celebrate. Their previous two first-round forays as a No. 1 – both here in Vivant Smart Home Arena – were mostly angsty slogs, to the point that Few in 2017 wished aloud not to be so burdened by the committee.
Those were different teams, of course, but this one had nine days to stew on that Saint Mary’s game. And while comparisons to the 2017 loss to BYU that spoiled an undefeated regular season were inevitable, that team had a three-game run in the WCC Tournament to get its mojo back.
“I don’t think you need to overthink that,” Lloyd cautioned. “We’ve had gut-wrenching losses at the end of the year and been able to regroup.”
Even Perkins admitted that whether that beating got under their skin for a day or a nine, it was “probably a blessing in disguise.
“We might have got a little complacent and thought we were on top of the world again,” he said. “Tonight, the emotion was at a high level and that as much as anything is what was lacking.”
Seems as if the Zags took their own temperature, too.
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