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Gonzaga Basketball

TV Take: ESPN, T-Mobile Arena provide March atmosphere for early-season showdown

By Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review

Games like this are meant for March. Maybe that’s why ESPN had its March-level announcing crew, Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas, assigned to Duke’s 84-81 win over Gonzaga on Friday night from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

With a game played at a high level, and often above the rim, Bilas stepped up and gave the viewers what an analyst is expected to offer: the why behind the what.

What they saw …

• “A fantastic early-season basketball game,” Shulman said as the Zags’ final length-of-the-court toss fell short.

Bilas was of the same mind.

“This was a heavyweight fight,” Bilas said. “Duke came out the victor in this one. But I have the feeling these teams are going to be playing again deep into the NCAA Tournament.”

• Duke attacked with gusto from the tip and Gonzaga fell behind by as many as nine midway through the opening half. The Blue Devils had little trouble penetrating the Zags’ man defense, with touted freshman Paolo Banchero picking up many of his 20 first-half points around the rim. The penetration also put Gonzaga’s bigs in harm’s way and the top three, starters Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme and reserve Anton Watson, all picked – and played – with two fouls.


Bilas had the answer.

“Gonzaga needs to do a little bit better in their gap presence and their gap coverage,” said Bilas, calling out the Zags’ ability to control the defensive cracks their modified pack line defense is designed to limit, “so they can limit Duke’s drives into the lane (that) break down their defense.”

They did, but it took until the second half.

Trailing 58-53, the Zags went on a 9-3 run fueled by their defense. The gaps closed, Gonzaga had two steals and three blocks and its offense took off.

“Gonzaga has tightened up defensively,” Bilas said.

And from there the game was within three points until the final seconds.

• It didn’t hurt that Banchero was hurting and was back in the locker room. He was dealing with leg cramps. He left the court with 14 minutes, 11 seconds to play, having not scored in the second half. He finished with just one point after the break.

“The question is,” Bilas asked while the Seattle native was sidelined, “where do you go for offense?”

Guard Wendell Moore Jr., for one. He finished with 20 points and six assists. Center Mark Williams, who had 11 points and five blocks before intermission, for another. He ended up with 17 points to go with nine rebounds.

• One non-March aspect of Friday’s game? There were a lot more whistles than you might hear in a Final Four matchup. Many of them were on Gonzaga’s bigs. It made a huge difference.

Bilas and Shulman kept talking about it, though they neglected to mention the discrepancy in numbers called. The final count: Duke was called for 15 fouls, Gonzaga 24. Julian Strawther, who led GU with 20 points, fouled out. Timme and Watson each had four, with Timme and Holmgren limited to less than 30 minutes due to the foul trouble.

Bilas did mention something that had an even greater impact on the final score: Duke’s pressure. It forced 17 Gonzaga turnovers, including six from the usually solid Andrew Nembhard, who sat just a couple of minutes. That led to 23 Duke points.

What we saw …

• The most positive thing we saw is simple: Bert Smith officiating the game.

We last saw the former high school track runner in March, when Gonzaga was racing past USC 85-66 in the Elite Eight. Early on, Smith, working his 17th NCAA Tournament, collapsed to the court while on the GU baseline. He was there, motionless, for quite a while as then-Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd raced to him, followed by emergency personnel.

The story ended on a positive note, however. Smith recovered before he was wheeled out of Lucas Oil Stadium and taken to the hospital. The issue he was dealing with, something that hadn’t even given him a warning before, turned out to be a blood clot in his lung. A dangerous blood clot in his lung.

The fall to floor allowed the problem to be identified and treated. Within days, he was fine. And now he’s back doing what he loves to do – officiate big-time college basketball games.

• There was one call Smith made late in the game that probably had Gonzaga fans shaking their heads.

Holmgren collared an offensive rebound with 2:50 left and GU trailing by two. There was lots of contact, enough for Bilas to say a foul should have been called, as Holmgren went to the floor. The official a foot from the play, Michael Greenstein, was making the hand signals that indicate Holmgren had been bobbling the ball, thus hadn’t traveled.

But Smith, 25 feet away and screened by bodies, blew his whistle and ran in to call a travel.