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John Blanchette: Win over North Carolina shows how much Gonzaga has grown

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 18, 2019

Trap avoided.

Turns out the Gonzaga Bulldogs weren’t looking past North Carolina to Saturday night’s opponent after all.

Hey, that’s no joke. The next dance partner – Eastern Washington – is a terrific team on a tear, and there’s every possibility the Zags will face a thornier scrap than they did in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Wednesday night.

When they led the storied Tar Heels by 23 points and the Kennel Club started twisting the knife with the chant, “We want Wofford!”

Ouch.

Wofford was the school that took down the Tar Heels before they arrived in Spokane to absorb their fourth straight loss – the first time that’s happened to Carolina since 2010. Come that March, Roy Williams and the Heels got shuffled off to the NIT.

Which happened to be the subject of the Kennel Club’s follow-up chant.

Yes, atmosphere actually made an appearance during the Zags’ 94-81 victory in the Kennel – both a throwback to back-in-the-day and something new altogether.

“Far and away, this is the best we’ve ever had,” said Corey Kispert, who rewarded the turnout with a sizzling 26-point night. “The noise, the energy, the hype. There were a lot of seniors and juniors who haven’t been in the Kennel for a long time sticking around and reliving their freshman year. I knew a lot of people up there.

“And beating Carolina is always nice – like having the monkey off your back.”

This referenced both the Zags’ loss in Chapel Hill last year and the 2017 NCAA title game heartbreak. But, of course, the context was all different – new faces on both teams and mere geography of the Heels being on Gonzaga turf. Blue bloods have passed this way before – Michigan State, UCLA, Arizona – but there’s something about the Carolina pedigree that stirred up the passions, even if the Heels arrived without their be-all, end-all leader, Cole Anthony.

“I’m so glad it’s over,” sighed Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “I’ve been hearing about this thing for six months from all our fans – in a good way. They were excited.”

So a salute to ol’ Roy for bringing the Heels cross country both to test his team and inject a little B-12 into college basketball – neither of which he’s necessarily obliged to do. It made for a high-old time.

And a salute to these Zags, who’ve already managed to make their own mark on a program where one-upmanship grows increasingly difficult.

In the space of 10 days, the Bulldogs have beaten three Top 25 teams – UNC clinging to No. 23 in the coaches’ poll. Two of those came in hostile campus arenas, and this one against a program that can leave an opponent starstruck even when it’s struggling.

“Coach Few harped on that,” Kispert said, “that it’s one of the best nonconference stretches we’ve had in program history.”

There have been six other times the Zags have played three ranked opponents within a span of 15 days or fewer in the regular season. The most memorable came on consecutive nights in Maui in 2005. The most brutal predated Gonzaga’s burst into the national consciousness by about 40 years – losses at No. 8 Detroit, No. 13 Providence and No. 6 St. John’s over four days in 1961.

This one was the most successful: Gonzaga’s never swept all three games until now.

And you couldn’t have sold Few on that prospect two months ago when he was trying to assimilate his a la carte menu of four holdovers, two graduate transfer guards and six freshmen.

“I would never have guessed it in a million years,” he said. “We were as far from where we needed to be in September and October – to the point where I didn’t know how the scrimmage was going to go against Michigan State. I felt like calling Tom Izzo and saying, ‘Hey, maybe we should pass’ and go play an intrasquad.”

Except that when the two teams met up behind closed doors in Denver, the Zags handled Izzo’s club.

“That’s when we understood we could do something really good,” sophomore guard Joel Ayayi said.

And when Few admitted to himself that, “Maybe we’ve got something here.”

GU’s room for growth is vast. The Zags have an abridged rotation doing on-the-job healing from injuries big and small. Foul shooting remains problematic. But their lapses have been manageable and – save one game – not fatal.

And they’re the No. 2 team in the country at the moment.

“This is a year they shouldn’t do rankings until like Feb. 20th,” Few demurred. “Everybody’s still trying to figure things out.”

Maybe. Ol’ Roy seems to have the Zags figured out.

“They’ve got all the ingredients of some of Mark’s great teams,” Williams said. “I think they’re one of the better teams in the country and in the top three or four, but I haven’t seen everybody.”

On this night, he saw enough. So did everyone else.

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