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John Blanchette: Good Zags show up to replace Bad Zags in Maui Invitational semifinal win

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 20, 2018, 11:44 p.m.

LAHAINA, Hawaii – Hey, maybe they really are the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Now, it’s possible Thomas Magnum, P.I., had to be choppered over from Oahu to find them, but even if a paid TV sleuth was required, it was certainly worth it.

Wait, worth it? It was riveting.

And in normal circumstances, there might be occasion to bask in the glow of Tuesday’s 91-74 sprint past Arizona a smidgen longer – just to appreciate the fulfillment of taking something ghastly and turning it into something great.

This is not normal. This is Maui.

A mere 16 hours after dispatching the Wildcats, the Zags will tip it off against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team in the 2 p.m. PST championship game of the Maui Invitational.

A daunting turnaround – and not just for Gonzaga.

“I don’t want to see you guys in the bars tonight,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few cautioned the assembled typists at his postgame presser. “Be ready to come down here and cover this properly.”

Given that it’ll be Duke in the other uniforms, covering it properly would seem to require a shovel to clean up the roadkill. Ever since eviscerating Kentucky in the season opener, the Blue Devils have been all but unanimously acclaimed as a shoo-in for another national championship.

But Duke couldn’t put away No. 8 Auburn without a bit of a struggle on Tuesday, and if it gets the Zags of their second half against Arizona, the afternoon could be fine fun.

If it’s the Zags of the first half, well, bring that shovel.

Those were the Zags who were whistled for 16 fouls, who committed 10 turnovers, who put the Wildcats at the foul line 20 times, who didn’t block a shot, whose most eruptive outside threat – as the rotation is constituted – was 0 of 6 from the arc.

The Bad Zags.

And in the wake of their 22-turnover, nuclear-meltdown second half in Monday’s win over Illinois, it gave rise to the disquieting notion that they had kidnapped the Good Zags and were holding them for ransom.

So what cracked the case?

“It wasn’t anything diabolical or inventing the atom,” Few insisted, “but getting back to who we are.

“We’d lost our way with some silly turnovers that got them going. We fouled way, way, way too much – some legit ones, but then we had some silly ones that were not very smart.

“We played with massive foul trouble that first half, so our lineups were really as crazy as we’ve had all year. We lost a lot of our offensive flow.”

The result was a 45-37 halftime deficit – that reached 13 points after the Zags missed four open 3-pointers to start the second.

Even a sports writer on a barstool can do the resulting math: That was a 30-point turnaround in the game’s final 18 minutes.

It started with a couple of blocks by Brandon Clarke. It continued with a breakaway dunk by Zach Norvell after that 0-for-9 start. When he finally broke the long-distance schneid, it pulled the Zags within a point – and when Arizona big man Chase Jeter managed to pick up fouls No. 4 and 5 on the same play, a protest earning him a technical, the dam essentially broke.

“It gave them an extra surge of momentum at a unique time of the game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

But the real surge came from what Few at first termed switching “basically our entire game plan there at the half.”

“Their defense started to switch on and off the ball, which is not easy to do,” Miller said. “I think that says a lot about their talent on both sides of the ball and those two big guys, Brandon Clarke and Rui (Hachimura).”

It’s not all seashells and balloons as the No. 3-ranked team in the nation. With all your fan base’s excitement comes the expectation that you’re supposed to play as championship contender Right Now – no hiccups, no speed bumps, no teetering on the high wire.

Now, lots of programs would kill for such outsized expectations. But just remember that the one Gonzaga team which did make the Final Four started the year ranked 14th – with a deeper, more experienced roster.

Far deeper, in fact.

“We got tested and pushed from the brink there and didn’t break, so I think that’s a great sign for us,” Few said, “again, especially that we’re doing this without Killian Tillie. He’s one of our best players – and a lot of nights, he’s our best player.

“But I really give these guys credit. They’re scratching and clawing and figuring out ways. And on short prep, we’ve just got to rest them up and it should be a fun – I’d say night, but it’s going to be morning. A fun morning in about eight hours or whatever it is.”

Set your alarms. Or issue an APB, if necessary.


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