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Gonzaga Basketball

Dave Boling: Amid the toughest stretch in recent history, Gonzaga stayed composed and found an identity in the process

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

In the fall, talk centered on all the new blood that needed to be assimilated into Gonzaga men’s basketball team.

After one of the early losses that uncharacteristically cluttered the Zags’ nonconference season, coach Mark Few cited the championship DNA that flowed in the Connecticut Huskies’ blood, and how it influenced the outcome of their December meeting.

And cold-blooded shooters? Scarce at times for the Zags during key stretches early.

In keeping with the hematic theme of the season, today we examine the blood of Zag center Graham Ike, and how its seepage from a right-elbow floor burn last weekend may have symbolized not only how much this team has grown, but also how ready it is resume its dominance of the West Coast Conference tournament and to enter the NCAAs on a rise.

All that from a couple drops of blood?

Well, when your best player is ready to sell out to the degree that he stops, drops and rolls on the hardwood for a loose ball to save a possession, nothing less will be accepted from everybody else in a Zag uniform.

GU already had bounced back off the canvas from a midwinter low point. The Zags had swallowed the humility of slipping out of the national rankings for the first time in almost eight years, shuffled the lineup and rotation a bit, and fought back into the top 25.

But the impressive revival could have unraveled without a strong final regular-season weekend, on the road at San Francisco and Saint Mary’s.

The Zags had fallen behind late in the first half against USF on Thursday, trailing 29-27 with about three minutes remaining before intermission.

Ike already had been sizzling on the offensive end, but on this defensive possession, he sagged on a driving Jonathan Mogbo, reached in, and poke-checked the ball away. As it headed toward the sideline, Ike did a swimmer’s dive to the floor, skidding while gaining control.

Despite taking a body shot from 240-pound USF forward Junjie Wang, Ike flipped the ball back into play, bouncing it off Mogbo’s shin.

From the floor, Ike grinned and signaled to the nearby ref that the ball belonged to the Zags. He was right.

It all happened in front of the GU bench, and his teammates raced to him while he examined his elbow and the conspicuous blood sample. Yeah. Have a good look guys, this is what it takes.

To perfectly cap this brief, but symbolic episode, Ike then took a mid-post pass from Anton Watson, and spun into a 10-foot jumper over 7-foot-2 defender Volodymyr Markoveskyy that tied the score.

As Ike went on to fuel a 19-3 Zag scoring run early in the second half, television commentator Sean Farnham cited the junior center’s poise and patience, composure and strength. “He feels like he’s Superman out on the floor.”

Does Superman bleed? Not for long. The Zags held on against USF and went on to handle rival Saint Mary’s on Saturday.

A lot of factors have played in the Zags’ late-season surge, and will be examined in further detail if they keep rolling.

Bringing in Ben Gregg as a starter was an obvious turning point, as he not only adds incalculable (and often nonstatistical) value, but has allowed wing Dusty Stromer to be a freshman off the bench instead of a slightly premature starter after a leg injury sidelined veteran Steele Venters.

Ike and point guard Ryan Nembhard have continued to mesh, mastering the manifold intricacies of the pick and roll, attacking from all angles, capitalizing on an opponent’s inability to defend every option they can exploit.

Guard Nolan Hickman has recovered his shooting confidence, and Watson has been perpetually solid in all phases, including, most valuably, leadership.

Under the cumulative pressure of their streak of 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Few and his staff have kept it from coming off the rails. And whether through his daily reminders or discovery on their own initiative, the Zags have come to recognize the preciousness of every possession, and have been playing at near-tournament intensity for a month. They get it. It just took time.

You know it when you see Ike, who has solidified himself as an elite collegiate big man, diving for a loose ball with the fervor of a small-school walk-on.

That’s the difference between a team that merely wants to win and a team that is willing to do absolutely everything it takes to make it happen. That kind of thing comes from inside, and is far more than skin deep.