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John Blanchette: Gonzaga learns new lessons while passing familiar test as conference champions

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 20, 2020

So it turns out the West Coast Conference still can teach the Gonzaga Bulldogs a thing or two.

Take Brigham Young, Saturday night’s opponent in Provo, Utah, in the first meeting of Top 25 teams within the league in 24 months.

The Cougars joined the club this week at No. 23, zooming past Illinois and Texas Tech and LSU at the nether end of the poll and three more in the waiting room, partially on the strength of a one-point escape against San Diego, which may or may not make it to double-digit victories this season.

Hey, gather ye resume builders while ye may.

That all six of those teams the Cougars leapfrogged lost at least once was a nice break, of course. Still, the Zags might want to seek a little counsel from their in-house rivals on how to sell themselves to the voters. After all, two wins this season once knocked Gonzaga out of the No. 1 spot; the Cougars made their move up with a sweep of Nos. 205 and 217 in the NET metrics.

In the meantime, the Zags absorbed another lesson Thursday:

On any given night …

No, they didn’t lose – which is the best way to learn. Instead, they cranked up a crazy comeback in the second half to blow by the San Francisco Dons 71-54, preserving the shine on that Top 25 showdown come Saturday night.

Oh, and this afterthought:

They won the WCC regular-season championship for the kabillionth year in a row.

Sorry. Bit of a stretch there.

The Zags actually clinched no worse than a tie for the title – three games up with three to play. And it’s now just 20 of the last 21 WCC titles they’ve owned or shared.

So common are these banners that they don’t even go up in McCarthey Athletic Center anymore, the west-end rafters being too full of NCAA embroidery.

That’s a bit of a shame. Dominance like that doesn’t happen without hard work, and sometimes some self-reflection.

Both of which were needed this night.

The self-reflection came at halftime, at which point the Zags had a season-low 22 points and seemed somewhat fortunate to have scored that many.

“As poorly as we’ve played on the offensive end,” coach Mark Few said.

To the point where it seemed as if someone was running the basketball through a Vaseline bath each time Gonzaga brought it past midcourt. And if it wasn’t the turnovers, it was the lack of offensive rebounding, or odd shot choices, or …

“We just weren’t very good,” Few sighed.

Actually, they were still pretty good on the defensive end, even if USF’s backcourt quickness and aggression make for maybe the toughest matchup the Zags see inside the conference. Even while winging in five 3-pointers, the Dons still only made 33 percent from the field before halftime.

It wouldn’t get any better. The Bulldogs, however, would.

They didn’t give up a basket for the first 6 1/2 minutes after intermission; it would be another 3 1/2 before they surrendered a second. Meanwhile, while forcing a rash of USF turnovers, the Zags uncorked their fast break – usually with Killian Tillie finishing – and reeled off 24 points while the Dons were stuck with that one basket.

They were, in Few’s estimation, “spectacular” – maybe as much as they’ve been all year, in that admittedly small sample size.

And they did it, the coach said, by “just being us.”

There’s something different in that formula this year, according to USF coach Todd Golden.

“What’s so unique about them … is they’re so physical and so big inside. That I think really leads to their lack of volatility in terms of how they perform,” he said.

“They really kind of raise the baseline, so to speak, in terms of what they can do because they don’t rely on their 3-point shooting. I think more than other teams they’ve had in the past, they really just hammer, hammer, hammer the ball inside. Even last year with Rui (Hachimura) and Brandon (Clarke), those weren’t back-to-the-basket guys. They were more screen-and-roll or rim-runner types, whereas (Filip) Petrusev and (Drew) Timme … just punish you and wear you out.”

There are other qualities, too, that have helped carry the Zags to another conference title – poise, adaptability, recovery.

“I didn’t like how we played in the first half and I’d rather not see that ever again,” Few said, “but it’s great to be put in those situations and not panic and be able to solve them.

“We’ve been hit hard with injuries and we started this year low on bodies. Losing Anton (Watson) was a big blow, and losing Brock Ravet was a big blow because he was the only other point guard in the program. There’s been a lot thrown at this team and they’ve been amazingly resilient. And there was a lot thrown at them tonight and they figured it out.”

So they’re still learning. And they’re still champions. Again.

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