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Gonzaga is no stranger to March, even when it’s not quite Gonzaga

Gonzaga is no stranger to March, even when it’s not quite Gonzaga

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

LAS VEGAS — Across the past 25 Marches the country has witnessed unknown Gonzaga, upstart Gonzaga, credible Gonzaga, overseeded Gonzaga, under-seeded Gonzaga, established Gonzaga, establishment Gonzaga and regal Gonzaga, among other Gonzagas. Now comes overlooked Gonzaga.

With a 69-60 loss Tuesday night in the West Coast Conference championship game against sturdy St. Mary’s, also the league’s regular season champion, Gonzaga probably went from stoking chatter as the reassembled, look-out-for-Gonzaga to an unfamiliar place as neglected Gonzaga.

At least that kind of thing can help — in sports and in March.

“We have a big chip on our shoulder, a very big chip on our shoulder,” sophomore forward and shooter Ben Gregg said in a hushed postgame locker room. “With the guys in this locker room, when we have chips on our shoulders, we’re a dangerous team. You know, we’re going to figure it out and we know what we’re capable of. A lot of people aren’t going to expect a lot from us, but we expect a lot from each other. I think that’s going to make us be able to make a deep run in the [NCAA] tournament.”

He spoke after the 14th Gonzaga-St. Mary’s WCC title matchup of this century saw the Gaels and their 15-rebound bulwark Mitchell Saxen muscle from a 52-51 deficit with 7:42 left to a 63-54 lead with 2:17 left, snaring nine of the game’s 10 rebounds through that span. As the Gaels reached 26-7 overall and 23-2 in their most recent 25, the Bulldogs could steer the flashlight to gladness in how their bolt from 11-5 on Jan. 11 to 25-7 in mid-March had made Tuesday night affordable.

In a country rich in prospective brackets, the proper noun “Gonzaga” spent much of the bygone regular season turning up in sentences close to the familiar noun “bubble.” Could the mainstay Gonzaga, which has made every NCAA tournament held since 1999 (and would have made the one they didn’t hold in 2020), miss out? Amid that chatter, Gonzaga became a sort of emblem of how sports are viewed and experienced in this era, with teams either up or down like stocks, and with little concern for the magic of constructing cohesion and quality across a season.

The Bulldogs started out with 4,859 of their 7,425 playing minutes from last season departed, and they started out with proof that, despite how things seemed, Drew Timme could not stay there forever, that his games total had to stop forever at some whopping number such as 143. “I think what was a little underrated was how much change,” 25th-season coach Mark Few said Monday night. “We lost an icon of a player in Drew Timme, in more ways than one. Just the swag he had carried us through a lot of moments, so we had to figure out ways not only offensively but defensively.”

All the while, they happened to reside in a country without much patience for such hardships, bringing inbound derision, “We saw it all year,” Gregg said. “We heard it all year. A big slogan in our locker room is just, ‘Be us.’ Just us against the world.”

The one-time Lilliput that became a kingdom had to relocate some of its inner Lilliput.

Steadily, they learned one another, including key transfers Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike, until they surged through January, through February, through Kentucky at Kentucky amid February, through St. Mary’s at St. Mary’s at the end of February, then a WCC semifinal against San Francisco when they logged numbers about which coaches shouldn’t even dare dream: 23 assists, three turnovers. (Guards Nembhard and Nolan Hickman had 18 and zero.) “It takes a while,” Gregg said, “for all these guys to learn how to play with each other, and we figured it out. It was a lot of growing pains at the beginning, but we figured it out and put ourselves in position to play in March Madness. Can’t complain about that.”

With five No. 1 seedings in the 10 Marches between 2013 and 2022, two of them hauled all the way to national runner-up finishes on closing Monday nights, Gonzaga became big enough to help those it routinely bested, as 23rd-year St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett put it: “Honestly they’ve helped us become the program that we are, because we were punching up there for a long time, just trying to do what they’re doing, and be as good as they were, and it’s made us good.” Now Gonzaga figures to sit at somewhere quiet such as 6 this time, one year after reaching the Elite Eight from a No. 3. Maybe it could notch some fine trivia: Starting with its No. 10 seeding in 1999 that made that Elite Eight berth a charm, it has held down every seeding from No. 1 to No. 12 at least once, except No. 5.

Yet the noise around it figures to ebb now much as it did Tuesday night, when the usual Spokane South among 5,794 inside Orleans Arena meant Gonzaga fans dominated the noise until some of them started filing out with 44 seconds left, with the score 63-56, the Gaels at the line and a swell section of maybe 80 St. Mary’s students hopping with merriment. Gonzaga had run into a somewhat tougher, slightly better team it won’t have to see anymore unless things get really mad, a team that utilized only six players but exulted that some of them were Augustas Marciulionis, Mason Forbes, Aidan Mahaney, Alex Ducas and that giant Saxen who, at 6-foot-10 and 230, stood in there in gladiator central gnarl-to-gnarl with Ike, 6-9 and 240.

When it ended, Few dipped to 20-6 in the past 26 WCC finals played while attempting reassurance.

“We’ll be fine,” he said. “We still have everything in front of us. You know, the guys have done a great job of putting us in position to play, you know, the greatest show on Earth. They did a fabulous job, and for months there, we probably weren’t in position to drop a game.” They certainly have elements that can work in a nutso event, from Ike’s post play to Nembhard’s quarterback play (11 assists in the final), plus Anton Watson’s strength, Gregg’s shooting and so on. Still, the much-noted lack of depth and the three-point shooting (94th in the country, after 22nd, 28th, 45th and seventh in recent seasons) figure to help pile up the slights.

“I mean,” Hickman said, “it could be a help but this is not where we wanted to be. This is not where, you know, fans, our fans, want us to be. And we know that. We feel that. We know our expectations, especially in this program, our standard. So honestly, we’ve just got to keep living by it. Things will start turning around. I’m a firm believer.”

Overlooked Gonzaga necessitates optimistic Gonzaga.

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