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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Brandon Clarke leaves everyone in Salt Lake City starstruck after dominating performance against Baylor

UPDATED: Sat., March 23, 2019

SALT LAKE CITY – All those “watch lists” for college basketball’s many awards that managed to miss on Brandon Clarke altogether this year, or scramble to include him at midseason, or leave him off the final cut?

Well, Gonzaga’s vicar of vertical wrote his own on Saturday afternoon.

The “Watch Me” list.

Watch him post up for a pretty little one-handed push shot. Watch him two-hand windmill a dunk on the break. Watch him power through two defenders or vaporize another opponent’s shot or tip in his own miss or rise up into the geospace for a rebound.

And watch – and appreciate – his Bulldogs teammates do.

“Is ‘Wow’ the word?” Josh Perkins wondered.

“Wow” was probably selling it short on Saturday at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Zags bruised past Baylor 83-71, advancing to their fifth consecutive Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament – and a sure-to-be-hyped rematch with Florida State

That’s a “wow” achievement for sure.

But Clarke made everyone send out for extra Ws to stretch out their awestruck reactions to a performance unmatched in Gonzaga’s considerable NCAA Tournament history: 36 points, eight rebounds, five blocked shots, three assists, two steals. Fifteen shots made in 18 attempts. Clarke broke Adam Morrison’s school record of 35 points in tournament play – against Xavier in 2006 across town at the Huntsman Center – and became just the third college player to reach 35 points and five blocks in an NCAA game.

Possibly you’ve heard of the other two: Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson.

Wowwwwwwwwwww.

“He played,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd confirmed, “out of his mind.”

And blew everyone else’s.

“The biggest stat line was that he drew nine fouls on people guarding him,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “And the thing that I was a little surprised (about), I thought we could block him out a little better. I mean, he really has a quick jump, too.”

This is, of course, no secret to the 6,000 local, uh, scouts who filled up McCarthey Athletic Center every game night this winter and watched him put together a season in which he has more blocked shots (110) than misses of his own (105). By the time Clarke notched his sixth double-double before New Year’s, it was clear he was a worthy – if very different – next model in Gonzaga’s assembly line of big men.

“The thing about BC is, you don’t necessarily have to call plays for him to impact the game,” Perkins said, “but when you do give him the ball in the post he has the best footwork in college basketball.”

And it’s not like he’s anonymous nationally, despite some of the award snubs. But he’s had to create his own buzz, having spent two years in a mostly moribund San Jose State program, then transferring to GU (“I came here for these moments,” he said) and gritting his way through strength coach Travis Knight’s redshirt boot camp.

“Running up and down stairs with sandbags on my neck and shoulders,” Clarke recalled. “That was bad. There were times I was wondering if it was even worth it.”

Saturday, he discovered its game application.

Significant contributions from Corey Kispert and other teammates notwithstanding, it’s not unfair to say that Clarke put the Zags on his back – particularly with Rui Hachimura struggling with Baylor’s bump and grind.

“We fed the beast,” Perkins said, “and the beast is still hungry.”

And, like Hachimura and Killian Tillie, he doesn’t just graze in one spot.

“Our bigs are getting their numbers called constantly in different areas of the floor,” Lloyd said, “and BC has really learned how to play and call his own number that way. He had a couple of looks to Rui tonight, high-low, and they were pressuring Rui so much, he just drove the ball and put foul pressure on them and finished.”

His biggest bucket of the night may have been his most remarkable. The Bears had cut the Gonzaga lead to nine and with the shot clock ticking away, Zach Norvell Jr. hooked an impossibly high pass to Clarke, who cranked his back to a 110-degree angle to collect the ball and lay it in over a defender.

“That’s one that tells you, ‘It’s your day,’ ” Lloyd said.

The Zags had another one of those in the first half. Geno Crandall lofted an alley-oop pass that settled into the net for a 3-pointer instead – Clarke wisely backing off from catching the ball in the cylinder.

“I guess I can say it was a great passing shot,” Clarke said.

Or an alley-oops.

In a nearly empty Gonzaga locker room afterward, Crandall was being asked one more time about the play when a reporter noted Clarke had “been shorted two more points.”

Standing just a few feet away, Clarke wheeled around and said, “Really?”

Josh Perkins was right. The beast is still hungry.

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