Yes, this was a bit of a gimmick game, played on the flight deck of a nuclear aircraft carrier docked in San Diego Bay. That only made the win an even more spectacular showcase for Gonzaga basketball.
For much of Friday early evening, one of the few positives GU could point to was that none of the players had fallen overboard. Unranked Michigan State vastly outplayed the Zags until All-American Drew Timme, as he has so many times in previous seasons, was a second-half lifesaver.
It added up to a 64-63 win for the No. 2-ranked Zags, but it also was a giant win for college basketball. The oceanside visuals at sunset, the uniqueness of outdoor play, the armed services flavor on Veterans Day made this more than just a competitive game between two talented teams.
This is the kind of game that draws viewers at the time of year when football dominates fans’ consciousness. Timme, the preseason national player of the year, was worth the watch, too. They should find ways to have more early season games from interesting and unusual venues.
Considering the game was aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, it seemed that Timme, as facial-hair maven, missed his chance by coming out with a full-foliage look rather than a Lincolnesque chin-strap trim.
Timme took awhile to find his sea legs, too, before dominating in the second half, particularly with moves up the port side of the lane, and bringing the Zags back from a 12-point deficit.
The comeback made this feel like a game worthy of being played for high stakes in March. Indoors. Under standard temperatures and no wind.
Fair to ask why teams would risk facing a tough opponent in such nonstandard conditions. Fair, but shortsighted. Everybody who played will never forget it.
Good coaches love this kind of opportunity to throw your players into challenging situations. It teaches them to adapt.
So there was a little wind. You learn to pound it inside. It will be a tactic needed in some games later in the season. Besides, wind has no effect on dunk shots, might even help lift-off and hang time.
Remember, every one of these guys has played thousands of hours on outdoor courts. They’ve shoveled snow to play, played in gloves, sometimes even boots. It had to feel like being kids on the playground again.
It might be even more of an atavistic joy for them if they had just skipped the temporary maple hardwood court they laid down and simply painted the boundaries right onto the deck and buried single steel stanchions at each end with double-reinforced rims and chain-link nets.
Maybe call your own fouls, too.
Here’s another positive, beyond the game results. This experience, win or lose, gives these players a broader worldview. It’s obvious they recognize the serious purpose of this ship and those planes and the men and women in uniform. I’d wager they’ll never think about Veterans Day the same way again.
So, the Zags come away with a win as well as a sense of appreciation for those who serve.
This, too, was a good opportunity for remote Zags fans to get their first good look at the 2022 Zags. Timme’s 22 points and 13 rebounds picked up where he finished last season. Julian Strawther and Nolan Hickman added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
Athletic newcomers Malachi Smith and Efton Reid had notable moments, especially Smith’s six steals.
On the whole, the Zags looked like a very good team still figuring how to fit players into their roles. Some of their troubles last season came against teams like Michigan State, which played hyperphysical defense. They might as well start dealing with it now.
But a characteristic that served them well last season, and appears to readily available again this season, is the grit the Zags showed fighting back after getting boat-raced well into the second half.
There was much they could learn from this experience, although it’s worth noting that the remainder of the schedule will be contended on land.
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