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John Blanchette: Familiar WCC title win has special feeling for Gonzaga

UPDATED: Tue., March 10, 2020

LAS VEGAS – When do you suppose came the signal for the Gonzaga masses that it was safe to exhale?

When Killian Tillie took flight along the baseline to swat – and then corral – Jordan Ford’s floater, the first evidence that the Bulldogs had a defense for the Saint Mary’s wonder and his assortment of Globetrotter trick shots?

When Corey Kispert finally connected on his first 3-pointer of the tournament and screamed, “I missed you!” into his right palm?

When MVP Joel Ayayi and the fellas actually hoisted the trophy with the confetti cannon spewing behind them?

The West Coast Conference recast the hardware for its basketball champions this year, but it looked pretty much the same in the hands of the Gonzaga Bulldogs – who more often than not have their fingerprints on it.

Or did it really?

Because from here, it seems as if this year’s championship might have been the best achievement.

Crazy, right? How do you even determine that?

In dispatching the Gaels 84-66 in the finale on Tuesday night at Orleans Arena, the Zags won their 17th WCC Tournament title in 22 years, and 18th overall. This was by no means the closest shave in that collection, though there was breath-taking drama in the first half and still plenty of good theater as the Bulldogs pulled away.

So how do you pick the biggest, or the best, or the most meaningful of those titles when the sample size is so great?

The first in 1995 couldn’t have been more special – firsts always are. The second in 1999 launched what still ranks as one of the most remarkable ongoing stories in college basketball, though nobody could know that at the time. There were ruthlessly dominant performances as in 2009 and the wild escape in Spokane in 2006 and those years – 2007, 2011 and 2016 – when Gonzaga absolutely had to win to continue its ludicrous NCAA streak.

But there has never been a set of circumstances quite like this.

“You can’t say on one hand the league’s the best it’s ever been,” coach Mark Few said, “and not expect games like these.”

He was talking about the first half against the Gaels, when the jitterbugging Ford lit up the Bulldogs for 20 points with an otherworldly assortment of moves and launch angles, but also the semifinal scare from San Francisco, which we’ll just go ahead and anoint as the WCC’s best fifth-place team.

But he was also talking about the fact that this tournament opened with three teams – the Zags, Gaels and BYU – already in the NCAA field.

“That’s never happened in this league,” Few said. “Throw in a team like Pacific that won 23 games and USF – this is the best the league has ever been.”

The Bulldogs went through it 17-1, and thundered a team that’s likely to be in the top half of the NCAA bracket to win the tournament.

That turned on a marvelous adjustment after Ford had been carving up GU’s defense – trapping the Gaels’ guard on high ball screens and forcing him to give up the ball. Once it even forced him to burn Saint Mary’s lone remaining timeout with – gulp – more than 13 minutes to play.

“It was born a little out of desperation, but we have done it before,” Few insisted. “But it was our guys scrambling around – the ones who weren’t involved in the traps – who were making the plays.”

After getting his 20 points in the game’s first 16 minutes, Ford never had another field goal. Likewise, forward Malik Fitts – who had four 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes – had only a free throw the rest of the way until a meaningless dunk with the game decided.

The tweaks that happen on the fly can be overlooked in the bigger picture, but the bigger picture of these Bulldogs has never escaped Few – and others.

“I think Mark’s done a great job with this team,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “He’s got a lot of new guys. The guards aren’t as experienced as they were. And they have two losses – that’s remarkable.”

It forever bears remembering that the Bulldogs lost two No. 1 NBA draft picks from a year ago, plus two guards playing in the G League (and two backups having fine years in Europe). In their place, Few plugged in two graduate transfer guards who arrived in the summer with rehab to do, a couple holdovers with modest minutes to their credit and a freshman – Drew Timme – who big-splashed his way onto the all-tournament team. And he roster-managed through injuries to Tillie and Anton Watson that could have derailed the whole operation.

“These guys, from where we were in July or September,” said Few, returning to a theme he’s shaped for weeks now, “went farther than any club I’ve ever coached.”

Even as it ended up in a familiar place. Champions, again.

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