A Thursday afternoon contest. The CBS college basketball theme music. Gonzaga wearing its home whites.
If you didn’t know better, you might think the Bulldogs were playing a first-round, NCAA Tournament game. But who knew their opponent would morph into a 16th seed from, say, Virginia vs. UMBC in 2018.
Santa Clara, not all that removed from a long COVID-19 pause, played nearly that well, especially early. Yet the result was the same as it’s been in the Zags’ past 50 games in the McCarthey Athletic Center, a victory.
Bringing the 89-75 Gonzaga win into the nation’s home on the CBS Sports Network were two broadcasters with Spokane connections, veteran Rich Waltz handling the play-by-play and analyst Dan Dickau, both viewing the game in person – a rarity in this pandemic-crashed season.
What they saw …
• The Broncos (10-7 overall and 4-5 in West Coast Conference play) broke out early, hitting nine of their first 12 shots and leading by as many as 10 points.
That may have been a little shocking, considering top-ranked Gonzaga (23-0, 14-0) had trailed by only 50 seconds at home in WCC play – a number CBS highlighted in a graphic after the first media timeout.
And it was Santa Clara’s early energy that built the lead.
At least that was Dickau’s view.
“Santa Clara playing with a ton of energy to start this game,” he said at one point. Later, he added, “Santa Clara brought the energy on the defensive end.”
That energy not only lit up the scoreboard. It resulted in Santa Clara leading for 11 minutes, 27 seconds of the opening half.
“They have come out and taken the fight to Gonzaga on both ends of the floor for most of the first half,” Dickau said just before the Bulldogs finally assumed a lead they took into the locker room.
• It was more than just the energy. It was also the Broncos’ plan of attack. They didn’t back down, especially attacking inside. It paid dividends, besides the 42 points in the paint they scored.
One dividend was Drew Timme had just two points at the half, mainly because he hardly played. Under constant pressure from Santa Clara’s bigs, he picked up his second foul with about 9 minutes left in the first half. That allowed Dickau to share something nationally he has alluded to on local broadcasts.
“This is one of my biggest question marks or concerns about Gonzaga when they go into the NCAA Tournament against a team with size,” Dickau said. “Drew Timme is really their only true big.”
Dickau then explained how Oumar Ballo and Pavel Zakharov had yet to earn minutes for a variety of reasons. And that has led to the Zags having a hole in the middle if Timme isn’t available.
“Anton Watson plays the ‘5’ at times, but he’s more of a ‘4,’ ” he added, referring to the post and power forward spots. “It’s just a matter of time before teams really start trying to get Timme into foul trouble.”
The time came Thursday.
What we saw …
• Gonzaga and Baylor were supposed to play early this season, as any fan of the programs can tell you. Because the argument of which team is better was not settled on the court, the narrative this year has been how the two programs have risen above everyone else. Recently, however, the undefeated Bears have been stretched by Big 12 Conference opponents – when they are not on a virus-caused pause – while Gonzaga has just breezed to win after win.
Maybe it was just time for the Zags to experience a little of what Baylor has against its conference opponents.
Waltz, who started his career in Spokane more than 30 years ago, asked Dickau if the close nature of the game was a blessing for Gonzaga. He thought it was.
“They haven’t been challenged nearly enough this season,” Dickau said, pointing to the early game against West Virginia and a recent win over BYU as exceptions. “This is a chance for a lot of their young players to really kind of grow into a moment.”
A couple of those who did, the 18-year-old Ballo and Ben Gregg, who should be a high school senior, came through in the first half. In relief of Timme and Anton Watson, who had three first-half fouls, the two combined for four points and three rebounds in seven first-half minutes.
• CBS didn’t pipe in any fake crowd noise, which was refreshing, but it did lead to a couple of instances of inappropriate words making their way into living rooms.
That was more than offset by the banter, trash talk and coaches’ comments viewers were able to hear.
At one point, Andrew Nembhard was called for an offensive push-off while driving against Christian Carlyle, a play that may have only been called because Carlyle acted as if he was hit by a snow shovel. That brought some comment from Zags head coach Mark Few, who had just pointed out seconds earlier Carlyle extending his arm to drive Aaron Cook back, leading to an open jumper.
“That’s the same play,” Few could be heard saying, loudly.
He didn’t seem to receive an answer.
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