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John Blanchette: Huskies on the rise again, but Gonzaga still the state’s top dog

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 10, 2017, 10:09 p.m.

Washington's Sam Timmins is surrounded by Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams, left, Silas Melson (0) and Rui Hachimura in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Seattle. Gonzaga won 97-70. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Washington's Sam Timmins is surrounded by Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams, left, Silas Melson (0) and Rui Hachimura in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Seattle. Gonzaga won 97-70. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

SEATTLE – As the Gonzaga lead mounted and more dispirited and distracted Dawg Pack members began flirting longer with their cellphones, the seven true-purple young men naked to the waist with “H-O-P-K-I-N-S” spelled out in paint chest-by-chest and belly-by-belly remained steadfast.

Possibly thanking their lucky stars that Washington didn’t hire Steve Wojciechowski to be head basketball coach.

You’d have to empty a dorm to have a full-flesh spell-out with him in charge.

So, yes, they’ll settle for Mike Hopkins, and why not? The Huskies’ new head coach already steered them to a win over soon-not-to-be-No.-2 Kansas and on Sunday night made his way up into the stands to thank the students for their contributions to an atmosphere at Hec Ed that harkened back a decade.

But getting this game back to the rivalry the Huskies so desperately want it to be?

That will take more work.

Because this week, it was Gonzaga that put in the work – in essence, to make sure the game didn’t become more than it’s been.

You saw it pay off in scads of ways. In the way the Zags carved up UW’s 2-3 zone, in the way they rebounded, in the way Jonathan Williams attacked with the ferocity he’d seemed to have misplaced for a couple of games, the way Josh Perkins directed the show and the way Silas Melson stage managed it – doing all the Silas Melson things that too often go unappreciated.

And you saw it in the final score: Gonzaga 97, UW 70.

Surely it can’t be lost on anyone that the spread – 27 points – was also reflected on the scoreboard at the Kennel when these two teams met there last season. It was 98-71 then.

Not a lot of progress, is it?

“We threw haymakers from the get-go,” noted Perkins. “Shoot, I like what we showed out there.”

So did his coach, Mark Few, who wheeled the Bulldogs into the shop after last week’s smackdown from Villanova at Madison Square Garden and did more than just tighten the lug nuts.

“They came into a setting that was kind of primed to see how we would react to adversity,” Few said, “and I thought our guys just handled it in a spectacular fashion.”

Primed? Try gouged.

Whether to freeze out the Gonzaga element in Seattle or goose the gate for other evenings – or just make a buck – Washington refused to sell single-game tickets for this one, instead making them available in a five-game package starting at $95 a seat.

If you can’t beat ’em, bleed ’em.

That didn’t stop upwards of 1,500 Gonzaga fans in the SRO crowd of 9,749 from ponying up – and then scurrying to Craigslist to advertise the discards, presumably at a discount.

But there was more to it than commerce.

Obviously, it’s nice enough that the schools bowed to common sense and public acclaim and resumed the home-and-home series last year after their 10-year cold war. The firing of longtime UW coach Lorenzo Romar last spring and the hiring of Hopkins, the coach-in-waiting at Syracuse who got tired of waiting for Jim Boeheim’s abdication injected a needed new element, what with GU having won 10 of the last 11 before this night.

And then U-Dub went and knocked off Kansas.

Suddenly, you could find Husky sentiment out there that this was on again.

It wasn’t.

“(Beating) Kansas – ‘We’ve arrived!’ “ Hopkins teased. “But we didn’t arrive. We won one game – where it was proven if you do these (certain) things, you can beat anybody you play. Tonight we didn’t.”

The Huskies’ zone isn’t the Syracuse zone – which is to say, it’s a new concept and not second nature, and it’s being practiced by players not yet at Syracuse’s level. Williams punished it hard, the Zags rebounded and ran and then finally heated up from 3. If they weren’t A-plus on defense, they got extra credit for more than halving their turnover count from the Villanova game – which stopped the Huskies from going on even a single damaging run.

Hopkins bemoaned the missed opportunity, especially in front of an amped crowd that needed just a couple back-to-back 3s to erupt.

“I wish we could have been closer to have it really effect the game in a positive way,” he said.

But whatever everyone else was feeling about UW’s purported legitimizer against Kansas, the Zags really weren’t.

“It’s college basketball,” said Melson. “Duke lost to Boston College. Nobody’s going to say Boston College – no offense to them – is a top 10 team. Teams are going to lose games sometimes. We understood (the Huskies) were coming in with some momentum – that’s what we paid attention to, a little bit. But it was focusing on us for the most part.”

Might be a good lesson for the Huskies.

Since the students have already aced spelling.

Follow along with the Zags

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