Friday, March 15, 2002

Sports

After three great runs, Zags hit a brick wall
John Blanchette observes that after every victory, there is another side.
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John Blanchette
The Spokesman-Review

photo
Dan Pelle - The Spokesman-Review
Wyoming's Uche Nsonwu-Amadi strong-arms Gonzaga University guard Blake Stepp underneath the basket in the second half. The Cowboys finished with 12 blocked shots while holding the Bulldogs to 26.8 percent shooting.

ALBUQUERQUE _ So this is how it feels.

In Gonzaga's giddy rides through the three previous NCAA basketball tournaments -- otherwise known as The Run, The Rerun and Syndication -- the aspect generally ignored or dismissed was how the other side must have felt.

How painful it was to have a big reputation busted, to leave a destiny dangling, to be something of a punchline, even.

How miserable it was to get Zagged.

Now the Gonzaga Bulldogs know, and it is knowledge that will be forever imprinted next to the joy of all those high times, because they cannot be separated -- not when you go from 29-and-3 to 0-and-out.

"This is terrible," said guard Kyle Bankhead. "This is sad."

This was also inevitable.

Not the bizarre business of shooting 6 percent or whatever absurd number the Zags crafted in their 73-66 first-round loss to Wyoming at The Pit on Thursday night. Nor the picture of this year's Bracket Czar, Lee Fowler, sitting
smugly at courtside, taking perverse pleasure in the team he'd taken the most heat over crashing -- never mind all the double-digit seeds shooting holes in his handiwork.

But one of these years, the Bulldogs were going to show up for the Big Dance and, right off the bat, run into someone with better rhythm.

No one remains a fugitive from the law of averages forever.

Naturally, this will not prevent a considerable amount of ill-informed tut-tutting and tsk-tsking back home -- and across Bracket Nation -- about Gonzaga allegedly looking past the Cowboys or not being able to shoulder the yoke of actual expectation.

Ridiculously bad shooting and disheartening losses simply can't be taken at face value. There must be deeper, darker reasons underneath, and if there aren't then certainly some can be invented, right?

But Tiger can miss the cut or lose in the first round of match play, and Omar Vizquel can boot a couple in the same inning, and Pete Weber can leave five open frames, and it doesn't have to mean anything, other than that they just didn't have it that day. And none of those guys has anybody guarding him.

Hoops happen.

Or, in Gonzaga's case Thursday, they don't.

Bullets you can dodge, but not a shower of bricks like this.

In 21 years of watching Gonzaga basketball, there is no recollection here of the Bulldogs ever making less than 30 percent of their field-goal attempts. That doesn't mean it didn't happen some dreary night 10 or 15 years ago when they were being tossed into the turnbuckle at Santa Clara, say. But the weird and outrageous tend to stick in the mind, and basketball stats don't get much more outrageous than 26.8 percent shooting.

"Are you kidding me?" snapped sophomore Cory Violette. "That's ridiculous."

Yes, it is. And yes, it was partly a function of Wyoming's full-contact brand of defense ("We got pushed around," said Violette, admiringly), and partly a function of the Cowboys' uncanny shot-blocking (they had 12, meaning the Zags were 0 for 12 before the ball even got to the rim), and partly a function of all that's riding on an NCAA Tournament game, though the Bulldogs were having none of that.

"We played loose, we played confident and we played aggressive, no matter what anybody says," said Dan Dickau, who had the most unsightly 26 points he'll likely ever have. "We just had some shots that didn't drop and instead of just happening to one or two guys, like it sometimes happens, it happened to everybody.

"Too bad it couldn't have happened four weeks ago instead of now."

To overcome such a dreadful number, the Bulldogs would have needed to exert an obvious superiority in some other area. But the Cowboys pride themselves on their rebounding every bit as much as the Zags do, and that area was a wash. And after a shaky first half of ball-handling, the Pokes took considerably better care in the second.

And mystified as he was by the 26.8, Bulldogs coach Mark Few was more disturbed by the 50 percent Wyoming shot against Gonzaga's zone ("They're not a great shooting team," he insisted) and the three straight times GU sent the Cowboys to the line in surrendering the lead ("We didn't play it very smart there").

There was a big Wyoming basket shortly thereafter that will be remembered as the play of the game -- Josh Davis' soaring follow-jam with 67 seconds left that gave the Pokes a 65-62 lead. But a bucket just as big came almost 5 minutes earlier, after Dickau had finally willed in a 3-pointer for a 55-49 lead.

"Here we go," Few thought to himself at the time.

But then Donta Richardson, whose assignment most of the night was to make Dickau's life hell, calmly winged in a 3 of his own at the other end -- one of only three Wyoming made -- and just that quickly, any Gonzaga momentum was erased.

"They had big plays at big moments in the game," Violette said, "and that's what our team is used to making. That's what everybody on the bench thought was going to happen. When it set in that we weren't going to win, with 7 seconds left, the feeling was just disbelief."

Multiply that by four or five for each TV set on in Spokane, and probably more than a few in Wyoming -- and, yes, they do have TV there. Richardson reported seeing ESPN refer to a Gonzaga-Arizona second-round matchup before a game had been played.

"They never even gave us a chance," he said, assuming some of that old Gonzaga posture.

Just what posture the Zags were taking, they couldn't be sure. This was a frontier they had no intention of exploring.

"It's frustrating to know they didn't see the real Gonzaga," said guard Blake Stepp, whose 1-for-13 shooting was the epitome of that frustration. "You try not to let it take away from all that's been accomplished -- the 29 wins, the fact that we actually came in here as a higher seed.

"Maybe we should want to be the lower seed from now on."

Dickau wasn't sold on that.

"Look, Wyoming's a heck of an 11th seed," he said. "They win their conference outright and they play in a pretty darned good conference. We threw out the seeds on Monday. We knew how good they were."

He also knew how the day was playing out. Tenth-seeded Kent State schooling Oklahoma State. No. 12 Missouri blasting Miami out of The Pit. Another 12, Tulsa, edging Marquette, one of the other three teams to beat the Zags. While GU's upset was in progress, No. 13 North Carolina-Wilmington was humiliating fourth-seeded USC.

At the end of each of those games, you can bet, the winners' fans took glee in trotting out the inevitable putdown of a vanquished favorite.

"I heard the crowd the last 7 seconds chanting, `Overrated!"' Dickau admitted. "But I still believe this team is one of the 10 best teams in the country, after seeing everything that's out there."

But for the moment, it just can't feel like one.

•You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.


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