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Gonzaga Basketball

Dave Boling: Zags’ alpha dog? With Anton Watson’s game against UCLA, Gonzaga has found its leader

Tyler Tjomsland/The spokesman-review
By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

HONOLULU – In the land of volcanic activity, of flowing lava and bubbling calderas, a long-awaited eruption took place Wednesday night.

Mount Anton went off.

Gonzaga’s Anton Watson had been in the lava-dome-building stage for a while, hinting at seismic possibilities.

For years, back to the early Drew Timme Era, Watson has been a complementary talent, a scrapper, rebounder, a nice player who occasionally fired up and made his presence known.

But the offseason talk had been of Watson, entering his fifth season as a Zag, becoming more of a force, leaner and meaner, who was even training with boxers.

It showed Wednesday night when – floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee – Watson fueled the Zags’ 69-65 win over UCLA in the Maui Invitational, which had been moved to Oahu after wildfires tore through Lahaina last summer.

He scored the first basket, then rammed home a dunk. He blocked a Bruin at the rim (who says the Zags don’t have a rim-protector?). Then he got credit for a tip-in that he might not have touched (hey, he was on a roll).

The most emphatic move came on a deft spinning drive in the lane about six minutes into the game. He added a hoop on a feed from Braden Huff and then nailed a long 2 for his seventh basket in seven attempts.

Fifteen points in 10 minutes for Watson in the first half.

He ended up with a career-high 32 points, making 14 of his 15 shots. When UCLA battled back, Watson stemmed a UCLA surge with a late-clock 3 midway through the second half. It was beautiful. A smooth stroke. Cool, confident.

UCLA surged again. Watson added another baseline floater.

UCLA surged again. Watson muscled in for a driving hoop.

UCLA surged again. Watson poured in an absolutely cold-blooded 3-pointer.

Again and again, Anton Watson became the player many had waited for him to become, the player so many believed he could be.

And for much of the night, he was not just the primary Zag, he was about the only Zag.

Coach Mark Few called this one a “rock fight.” Because of hyper-officiating, 51 fouls were called. Usually, when the Zags meet UCLA, it’s a masterpiece. This was disjointed, without flow, and wildly, fiercely competitive.

This tournament, perhaps one of the most competitive holiday tournaments ever, was a time for finding your team’s identity, getting an early idea how all the new puzzle pieces are going to fit.

And after losing by 10 in the opener to the eventual champion Purdue, sure to be the new No. 1-ranked team in the nation, the Zags rallied Tuesday for a nice win over Syracuse before engaging the Bruins in a foul-fest.

What did they learn about themselves?

One, they’re tough, really tough, and they can win when they’re not at their best.

Their guard play was spotty. Center Graham Ike can dominate and can disappear. Shooting, at least at the moment, is a problem.

In all three games, they played strong defense, maybe as well as they have played in a while. The 10-point loss to Purdue in the opener, the result of a second-half shooting slump, didn’t look as bad as it did a few days earlier.

Purdue beat Marquette for the title of the tournament. Marquette appears to have one of the best defenses in the nation, but Purdue scored 78 against them in the title game, while GU held the Boilermakers to 73.

To come out of this tournament with a 2-1 record, with wins over Syracuse and UCLA, is impressive. Before the tournament, several coaches mentioned that some teams could lose twice and still have legitimate Sweet-16 talents.

So, the loss against Purdue was not a terminal black mark by any means.

With so many new players every season, finding a winning identity takes some time, and it’s often only revealed by facing top competition. By being tested. These guys fought back from that emotionally bruising loss to Purdue.

UCLA’s coach, the chronically dyspeptic Mick Cronin, said that Watson reminded him of Timme, the Zags’ all-time leading scorer.

High praise. The highest he could give.

It meant that in the end, the Zags discovered a star that they had all along.