The Gaels’ attempted sweep of Gonzaga in the WCC title game Tuesday didn’t go their way — an 85-75 loss — and the sting was doubly painful because it took away a certain NCAA bid. Randy Bennett’s proud team, which compiled a 27-5 mark in what every “expert” on the planet assumed was a rebuilding year, now must withstand another several days of scrutiny from that unforgiving body known as the NCAA Selection Committee.
In filling in brackets for the 68-team field, the committee ponders an unfathomable welter of statistics, opinions and biases to determine if, say, a Saint Mary’s regular-season WCC conference championship share is equal to a fifth-or-sixth place finish by a team in the ACC or other Power Conference. Who knows what they’ll come up with?
ESPN announcer/analyst Fran Fraschilla, who was a roving color man on Tuesday’s national broadcast, was all optimism before the game began. He predicted boldly that both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s would get into the field, but he may have been playing politics because he didn’t want to irritate the coach of either team. Who knows?
The most visible amateur bracketologist, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, waffled more than a line cook at Denny’s in his predictions before and after the SMC-Gonzaga game. Before: the Gaels are a solid 8th seed. After: the Gaels are momentarily among the walking dead pending the outcome of several conference tournaments this week. Way to take a stand, Joe.
About the game
The contest that precipitated all this uncertainty was a well-played battle between two teams powered by pride. The Gaels wanted to prove that their two conference wins over Gonzaga were not a fluke and that they deserved the outright WCC championship. Gonzaga wanted to prove those two wins were a fluke and that they were the rightful conference champ. Turns out Gonzaga’s pride trumped the Gaels’.
I know the statistics show that a team playing an opponent they have beaten in two previous games prevails more than 70% of the time in a third game, but those stats don’t take into account the pride factor. Just as the Gaels were amped to take down Pepperdine Monday night after losing twice to the Waves in the conference season, Gonzaga was amped to do the same.
An even greater prod was the specter of the Zags being on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament if they didn’t secure the WCC auto-bid. A particularly vociferous Gael fan made that point repeatedly to a particularly obnoxious Gonzaga fan Tuesday night. Outnumbered approximately 150-to-one by the swarming Zag hoard — as were we all — the spunky young Gael shouted over and over, “You have to win.”
Fans aside, the Zag players came out smoking en route to a nearly 70% first-half shooting display (18-26). Zag guard Josh Perkins, who has struggled this year to make Zag fans forget Kevin Pangos, took the Gaels’ Joe Rahon to the rim on the game’s first possession, scoring a ridiculously easy lay-up that set the tone for the game. Perkins, Eric McClellan and swing man Kyle Dranginis all had big nights, totaling 49 points among them. By contrast, that trio scored 36 in the Gaels’ win over Gonzaga in Spokane, despite Perkins having a big game that night with 21 points.
The big difference was Dranginis, who must have received the Mark Few mind meld treatment since that night in Spokane when he suffered through a 1-6 stinker. He went 5-6 for 13 points Tuesday night, alternating between making Calvin Hermanson and Kyle Clark look inept defensively. At least his performance took the spotlight off Rahon’s struggles with Perkins, who has smoked him for 37 points in two games.
Perkins stands 6-5 to Rahon’s 6-2, and looks more physically intimidating. Rahon has played up against the likes of BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth, who is 6-6, and down to many of the WCC’s jitterbug guards, and has held his own in both scenarios. His deficit against Perkins, however, emphasizes the Gaels’ need to develop a strong perimeter defender as they build for the future. I don’t know if such ability is in the genes of freshman Franklin Porter, but of the existing and expectant Gael guards, he has the physique to take on the task.
Rest of the story
The Gaels did not wither under Gonzaga’s energy and shooting excellence. They trailed by only eight at the half, and started the second half determined to whittle down the lead and remain competitive for a big finish. They got the score to 64-61 at the eight-minute mark and to 66-65 with 6:44 left. As difficult as it is to quiet a roaring throng of more than 7,000, Rahon almost did it with the rainbow three-pointer from the corner that created the one-point deficit.
Rahon electrified the Gaels for a moment, but his teammate Emmett Naar carried the team throughout the game. His line of 25 points and six assists was sparkling, but his calmness and boldness were more striking. His drives into the chests of the lurking Domantas Sabonis, 6-11, and Kyle Wiltjer, 6-10, were things of beauty and courage, and he bested them time and time again. Some videographer some day will capture Naar’s impassive face as he maneuvers to exploit a mismatch against the likes of a Sabonis or Wiltjer: he almost licks his lips as he contemplates which side of the lane to attack — he is equally deadly with his right or left hand — then begins his silky advance that results in a score or foul — or both. Of a million great stories in 2015-16, his has been the most remarkable.
The Zags were more resilient than in the previous two meetings, and quickly pushed the one-point lead back to 70-65 behind four straight free throws by McClellan. Fouling McClellan in Las Vegas was not as successful as it was in Moraga, when he missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have given the Zags the lead in the Saint Mary’s victory. McClellan sank nine of nine free throws Tuesday night and looked as if he might make a few dozen more if the opportunity presented itself. Along with Perkins, he has matured during the season and gives the Zags an excellent back court tandem to go along with the front line excellence of Sabonis and Wiltjer heading into the NCAA Tournament.
There were many twists and turns as the game wended to its disappointing climax, but the key moment for me came at the 1:12 mark with the Gaels trailing by six, 75-69. Evan Fitzner, the on-again, off-again redshirt freshman bulging with potential, took things into his own hands. Fitzner, who passes up more shots than a teetotaler at a Jack Daniels convention, didn’t waver and didn’t defer to another shooter. He launched a three-pointer that would have cut the deficit to three and given the Gaels much-needed momentum for the final minute.
And missed. The errant shot ended any real chance for a Gael victory and led to a series of intentional fouls that helped the Zags pad their lead and finish a remarkable night at the free-throw line: 21 for 22. But I was thrilled to see Fitzner take the shot. It said all the right things about a player who has suffered from Bennett’s short leash more than any other Gael. He should be taking big shots in big games, and I’ll be rooting for him to take more as the Gaels continue their season.
In either the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
Emmett Naar, shown in an earlier game against Gonzaga, had a brilliant game against the Zags Tuesday night, scoring 25 points and dishing out six assists.