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Gonzaga Basketball

TV take: Gonzaga refuses to ‘go away’ during prime time win over Kentucky on CBS

By Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review

For more than 20 minutes Saturday afternoon, the Gonzaga Bulldogs showed the nation why they are loved by the analytical establishment. And why they should be a no-doubt NCAA Tournament participant, no matter what holes they may have in their resume.

Problem was, the next 7 minutes, 30 seconds were all about Kentucky, another team with unusually deep question marks, which showed its strengths during a get-back-in-the-game 25-7 run.

It wasn’t enough. Not on this day. Not with all that was riding on the outcome for Gonzaga, which battled back, held its poise and prevailed 89-85.

Appropriately, as the game had an NCAA tourney feel, it was televised on CBS, with veterans Brad Nessler, Bill Raftery and the “young” guy, retired Villanova coach Jay Wright, on the broadcast.

Seconds after Nolan Hickman iced the result with his 16th and 17th points on two late free throws, Nessler summed up a contest that include about a dozen dunks, key steals and crucial stops, with a typically short statement.

“What a great game,” he said. “A super Saturday. Super Bowl 58 is tomorrow. Gonzaga wins it.”

What they saw …

• It didn’t take long – about 5 minutes of game time – for Gonzaga’s on-the-edge NCAA status to come up. And it was the two-time NCAA champion coach, Wright, who set the tone.

“I’m thinking,” he told Raftery, “even with a win today, they’re probably going to have to win their conference tournament” to continue their 24-year streak of appearances.

“I’m not a … bettor,” Raftery answered, though not answering Wright’s statement directly. “I would never bet against them. That team and that program, over the years, they’ve been struggling to get into the (NCAA) tournament, (they) win their tournament and get in.”

Now, they may not have to.

After watching Graham Ike (23 points before fouling out) Hickman, Anton Watson (17 points, seven rebounds) and Ben Gregg (14 points and a handful of court burns) hand the Wildcats (17-7) their third consecutive home loss, did Wright’s feeling on the matter change? Sadly, with the game running long, we didn’t get the opportunity to find out.

By the way, at tip Gonzaga was ranked 25th in the NCAA’s NET rankings and 22nd by Ken Pomeroy’s respected computer rating system. Those numbers are consistent with usual at-large candidates. The Zags’ biggest resume hole is they were 0-5 in Quad 1 games, the key NCAA metric which takes into account game site and opponent’s NET ranking. This win made the record 1-5.

• It is 2024, right? Which makes it hard to image an intersectional showdown on CBS would feature an announcing team including Raftery, who will turn 81 in April but sounds as good as he did 30 years ago, and the always-well-dressed Wright, who struggled from the beginning pronouncing Gonzaga, using the almost-eradicated Eastern-tinged Gon-zaw-ga often before halftime.

Maybe that last one is to be expected, as Wright, 62, built his reputation in Philadelphia. What was unexpected, however, was the second-year analyst used the right pronunciation right after halftime. He paused before he said it, sure, but got it right. Once.

• No one believes in an announcer jinx, right?

I have to admit, though, when Nessler mentioned just before the halftime break Gonzaga had won 159 consecutive games when leading by 10 at the half, I immediately thought about it. And when Nessler, at 67 well aware of such things, did it again coming out of the break, I thought it sort of had a twist-the-knife-in feel. After all, Kentucky in the Bulldogs’ first visit to Rupp isn’t a home game against, no offense, Pacific.

And when the Wildcats went on their big second-half run, no one would have mixed up the two.

But thanks to GU’s late-game heroics, the streak is at 160.

What we saw …

• After Kentucky’s game-altering run, the Zags (18-6) began to run their offense almost exclusively through their bigs – something Wright noticed, and praised, any time they did it during the game – and a middle ball screen.

The Wildcats had trouble with it all of it – especially late, with Braden Huff on the floor.

The redshirt freshman followed up his 25-point performance against Pepperdine with an even-more-impressive 12-point showing against Kentucky and its group of NBA-bound inside players. He collected all by two of his points in the second half, when Ike was sitting with foul trouble and Kentucky’s crowd was engaged.

“Braden Huff is giving them incredible minutes,” Wright said after a Huff offensive rebound and two free throws gave Gonzaga a 73-70 lead.

“They don’t go away, this team,” Raftery said.

And that probably will be true come Selection Sunday as well.