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Notebook: Zag seniors already missed

Jim Meehan and Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review

HOUSTON – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stopped Kevin Pangos in the handshake line for an extended verbal pat on the back.

“He was really nice about saying how he really valued my game and how he wishes we could have been in the Final Four, and I do, too,” said Pangos, after his stellar four-year run at Gonzaga ended with a 66-52 loss to Duke on Sunday. “He was great about it and how this team deserved it.”

Time ran out on the Gonzaga careers of three seniors but teammates and coaches talked at length about the contributions of Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley to the program.

“It just sucks that I’m not going to be able to play with them again,” said junior Kyle Dranginis, who was in the same recruiting class as Pangos and Bell but redshirted. “For four years, basically living together, hanging out every day, it’s going to be weird me being the only one left. We made history with these guys and I’m just glad I was able to be part of their team.”

Bell matched his uniform number with five points and Pangos, who wears No. 4, did the same. Wesley had 10 points and five boards.

The Zags posted a school-record 22-game winning streak and won 35 games, three more than 2013 squad that was 32-3. Gonzaga’s Elite Eight run matched the 1999 team.

“This is going to hurt for a while but to be at the top of the food chain as far as Gonzaga teams, with all the great teams that have been here, is really something special,” Wesley said. “I just want to say how proud I am of my teammates and coaches for fighting all year.”

Added Bell: “It’s meant everything. We made it to an Elite Eight and that is something you dream of, to play on this stage. You dream of that stuff growing up.”

Pangos and Bell, who missed seven games due to injury, finished their four seasons with a 122-20 record.

“You’re not going to get higher character guys, you’re not going to get better Zags, you’re not going to get better teammates,” coach Mark Few said. “And their mark basketball-wise at Gonzaga, the most career wins, advancing within minutes of a Final Four, so they’re right there with the greatest that have ever played. No question they’re probably the greatest backcourt.”

Bright future

The Zags should have another quality roster next season, presuming three talented bigs return. Kyle Wiltjer, who led the team in scoring, center Przemek Karnowski and freshman forward Domantas Sabonis formed one of the nation’s top frontcourts.

“I’ve got another year of eligibility so that’s my plan right now (to return),” Wiltjer said.

Sabonis is rated on several draft boards as a late first-round draft pick.

Duke limits turnovers

Even though Duke wasn’t able to match GU’s success inside, the Blue Devils made up for it by getting a shot on nearly every possession. Freshman point guard Tyus Jones was a steadying presence with 15 points and six assists and, most importantly, zero turnovers despite playing all 40 minutes.

The Blue Devils only turned it over three times, 10 less than the Zags, which made up for the fact that the Bulldogs made 20 of 40 two-pointers while Duke finished 13 of 37.

Matt Jones steps up big

After a quiet freshman season in which he averaged less than two points per game, Duke guard Matt Jones followed Russell Wilson’s lead, writing “Why not me?” on his sneakers.

Jones, one-and-done star Jabari Parker’s roommate last year, worked his way into the starting rotation toward the end of his sophomore season. And then he shot the Blue Devils into the Final Four.

The curse of NRG Stadium, which stifled shooters all weekend, didn’t affect Jones, who made 4 of 7 attempts from behind the arc and tied for the team lead with 16 points.

His outside shooting made it difficult for the Bulldogs to pack the paint on defense. That could have knocked GU out early if Karnowski and Sabonis hadn’t been able to handle leading-scorer Jahlil Okafor one-on-one.

“Initially we went in, we wanted to double Okafor, just trying to keep Przemek out of foul trouble early,” Few said. “They hit some quick 3s on that, we went back to guarding him one-on-one. But gave up a couple corner 3s to Matt Jones that we never should ever give up.”

Wiltjer, Sabonis honored

Wiltjer and Sabonis were selected to the South Region All-Tournament team.

They were joined by Duke’s Matt Jones, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, the tournament’s most outstanding player.

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