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John Blanchette: Huskies infused new life into rivalry during Gonzaga’s down-to-the-wire win

Three days less than 20 years ago, Bob Bender did a nice thing for some coaching buddies and unwittingly changed the arc of basketball at the University of Washington.

He brought the Huskies to play Gonzaga in Spokane.

Surely someone – an assistant, an athletic director, his mechanic – must have suggested that this was rash of UW’s head coach of the moment, like buying a bottle of Pinot at the Kwik-E-Mart. You didn’t get dirty looks when you called the Bulldogs a midmajor in those days, and scheduling home-and-aways with the mids was Simply Not Done.

The capital letters were added when the Huskies lost – and continued to lose, mostly, for the next eight years.

But that was the first time in 55 years the Zags had beaten UW and Washington State in the same season, and then-coach Dan Monson noted that “beating Washington and Washington State is always a measuring stick people are going to have for Gonzaga.”

Hey, told you it was a long time ago.

Much has changed. The Zags are the measuring stick now – not just regionally, but now nationally, being No. 1 and all. And you know who measures up pretty well?

The Huskies.

They did on Wednesday night, at least – the Zags needing a nervy bucket on a foul line jumper by Rui Hachimura with a scant 0.6 on the clock to escape with an 81-79 victory.

It set off pandemonium among the 6,000-plus squeezed inside McCarthey Athletic Center – minus those few mopes who are hardwired to leave early for a jump on the traffic even with the score tied. And it was exactly the sort of madness the college basketball intelligentsia idealized when the schools resumed the series a few years ago.

And it’s about time it got good again.

“They looked at it as a great opportunity,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Obviously, when it’s Washington-Gonzaga there’s going to be a lot of emotion to the game. I thought we were a little flat yesterday in practice. We’ve had a lot of emotional games and obviously we have more coming up. We responded when we needed to.”

Six-tenths is taking need down to the bone.

But if the way the Zags decided to exercise their clutch muscle had their fans groping for the Xanax, you can at least admire how they flexed it – Josh Perkins probing for the entry to Hachimura among the Huskies hounding him at the foul line, and Gonzaga’s marquee guy not shying from the bright lights.

“Josh made a big-time pass to find Rui – it’s not easy finding him there in the high post,” Few said. “And, hey, that’s a big-time shot, but it’s kind of in his wheelhouse. We’ve all seen him hit that. I liked our chances when he rose up for it.”

Of course, everybody liked the Zags’ chances better when they were ahead 79-71 with 2 minutes to play, or by 11 three minutes before that. They liked the way the Bulldogs were testing the soft middle of Washington’s zone, and they liked the way Gonzaga had the Huskies looking rudderless on offense.

And then the second half started.

UW wiped out a 10-point Gonzaga lead before the first TV timeout, and it was pretty much a fistfight thereafter – and kind of clinching in the corner for the Bulldogs in the last 2 minutes as Jaylen Nowell brought the Huskies back.

“We had a couple empty possessions that weren’t good there,” Few said, “and we didn’t guard great down the stretch, so I don’t know how good we were late game.”

They’ll have to be better – immediately, in fact. Next for the Zags: No. 7 Tennessee in Phoenix, followed by No. 14 North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

But then, the Huskies and their Pac-12 brethren need to get better in a hurry, too.

Lost in the mudslide over the league’s football reputation these past couple of weeks has been a equally dreadful performance in basketball. Pac-12 teams have managed a couple of Top 25 wins, but they’ve also lost to the likes of Yale, Texas Southern and Seattle, among others. They’re the worst of the Power 6 leagues in winning percentage thus far against Division I opponents – and are a sorry 4-16 against the other five.

The West Coast Conference, by comparison, is 9-8 – and that’s not all Gonzaga’s doing, either.

Not that the Huskies needed to be carrying any extra weight Wednesday night – having lost 12 of the previous 13 meetings going back to Bob Bender’s good deed. And getting close didn’t help much.

“There’s no consolation,” UW coach Mike Hopkins said. “I don’t care who it is. That’s not our standard. The most important thing is your guys play your heart out and the other team has to be better than you. We played our hearts out.”

And the Zags were better. By a shot.


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