LAS VEGAS – A bit more than four minutes remained when Joel Ayayi got loose in the paint and pulled up for a 10-footer that would give Gonzaga the lead for good and paint a whole new shade on the day.
Instead of Black Monday for Gonzaga, it was Off-Black Monday.
OK. Gray Monday.
Earlier in the afternoon, Gonzaga’s women were rudely exiled from the West Coast Conference Tournament by upstart Portland – only the third time in 25 years the top-seeded women’s team failed to reach the championship game (for what it’s worth, it’s been Gonzaga each of those three times because, well, who else?). It will not cost the Zags any NCAA Tournament air time, but it could complicate their chances of being hosts for first and second-round games depending on just how snooty the seeding and placement committee decides to be.
Then came some news that a Utah man who on Friday tested positive for COVID-19 had attended the Gonzaga-Brigham Young game in Provo last month. So, yikes, right?
Health officials said those at the game who were sitting within six feet of the 60-year-old man are being contacted and cautioned about possible exposure – leaving us to presume that he teleported to his seat and didn’t visit a concession stand or restroom. OK, then.
And then the Gonzaga men were on the wrong end of the score with five minutes to play in their semifinal against San Francisco, though they did find salvation by way of an 81-77 victory.
This brought to mind something Jenn Wirth of the women’s team offered earlier in the day.
“March is a gamble,” she said.
At least both Gonzaga teams are playing with the house money of assured spots in the NCAA bracket, but still.
Plus, there’s the law of averages. The men’s team will appear in its 23rd consecutive WCC title game on Tuesday night – and 25 of the last 26. Eventually, the sheer weight of that is bound to break the Zags.
“It’s a torch we have to continue to carry,” said forward Corey Kispert. “There’s an expectation to get to the championship of this tournament and play in it. We consider ourselves the best team in the league and being in the championship is kind of a by-product of that.”
But, man, is the margin for error growing ever thin.
This was abundantly clear in the tussle with USF, which presents matchup problems with a couple waterbug guards and a sinewy slasher in Charles Minlend and betrays no fear among its mostly overmatched big men. In fact, clunky Jimbo Lull had 13 points when fouls weren’t pinning him to the bench, and Remu Raitanen had three 3-pointers in the first half that kept the Dons close.
“But those are the kinds of games you love to play in,” reasoned freshman Drew Timme, “the grind ‘em outs. It’s good prep for March.”
In this case, the parallels to the women’s semi in the afternoon were downright eerie. In that one, Gonzaga bolted to 29-9 lead, then took the second quarter off and let the Pilots inch their way back – and more. Likewise, the men looked crisp in building a 21-9 lead, which the Dons managed to erase in just seven minutes.
Then the teams settled into throwing dirt clods at one another – four ties and 10 lead changes in the second half.
The issue was defense. The women couldn’t keep Portland out of the paint, and the men couldn’t figure out a way of stringing together stops. They even took a stab at a zone briefly that was not helpful.
But they did find a playmaker down the stretch in Ayayi, and that kind of speaks to what it is they do.
Other than his usual under-appreciated rebounding, the sophomore guard’s play had been undistinguished until he squirted in for that bucket to give GU a 71-69 lead. Then it came in a rush – another 8-footer, a couple of free throws after being tripped on a drive and the nerviest bucket of the night, a lefty flip in traffic that whirlpooled into the net for a six-point lead and 75 seconds to play. The Zags still had to hit some free throws – never a guarantee, but accomplished in this case.
“That’s the nature of our team and how balanced we are,” insisted Kispert. “Those guys were concentrating on two or three of us really heavily and really didn’t pay Joel enough attention. And he’s a guy we trust down the stretch of a game.”
Their job done, the Zags awaited the other semifinal between Brigham Young – the only WCC team to beat GU this year – and Saint Mary’s.
Filip Petrusev copped to wanting BYU.
“Unfinished business,” he said.
But the Gaels managed to prevail in their own grind-’em-out, 51-50. Surely someone will remind Petrusev that it was Saint Mary’s who denied the Zags their tournament title last year.
Different business. Still unfinished.
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