SAN DIEGO — Not that your bracket wasn’t hemorrhaging anyway, but Gonzaga likely bruised it a little more here Friday. Along with those of Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps, Seth Davis and just about any other talking head who weighed in on the Zags’ first-game NCAA matchup with Oklahoma State.
Can’t say they weren’t forewarned: Gonzaga entered having won in each of the last five tournaments. Make it six now, as the Zags outfoxed Oke State, 85-77.
“Is it six now?” asked GU coach Mark Few. “That’s not quite as amazing as the 16 streak (consecutive tournaments), but it’s amazing. Any win in the NCAA tournament is really hard.”
So the odd dichotomy of Gonzaga continues — dissed for too often not going far enough, darlings of early games that are a virtual tossup.
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Opinions, like brackets, are ever so cheap in March, and analysts took about five seconds Sunday to project No. 9 seed Oklahoma State as a potentially killing matchup for top-seeded Arizona. That’ll be difficult, with the Cowboys due to be half a continent away in Stillwater.
“Right when we got selected, it was, ‘Oh, Gonzaga’s not winning that game,’ ” said Gary Bell Jr., the junior guard from Kentridge. “‘Oklahoma State’s gonna win.’
“I was like, ‘not gonna happen.’ I want to play against Arizona. I want to be on that stage. As a team, we all wanted that, and it showed.”
It did show, if you could slog through what might have been the messiest last four minutes since Hank Luisetti debuted the jump shot. From the 3:52 mark (the final TV timeout) until the finish, the teams combined to attempt 37 free throws, and many in the restless crowd either booed or left.
Gonzaga (29-6) never so much as trailed, bursting out 9-0, leading 43-34 at half, and then looking fragile as the Cowboys (21-13) strung together a 7-0 run to get within 53-50 with 11:24 left. That’s when Few called time out and got creative.
“These guys deserve credit for that,” Few said. “That was a set play we never ran all year.”
Bell had begun the game afire, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes. But foul trouble had turned his offense sporadic, so Few directed a play to him off a double-screen down low for a pivotal trey.
“An ‘elevator’ screen,” Bell said. “I was thinking shot before they even passed the ball. We were in a drought.”
On Oke State’s next possession, Kevin Pangos stole a pass and drove for a layup, restoring a 58-50 lead, and the Cowboys were never closer than six in the final, interminable minutes.
It’s precisely that sort of acumen on the Bell play that flummoxes Travis Ford, the Oklahoma State coach, when his team meets Gonzaga. OSU is now 0-6 against the Zags, all in the last decade, four under Ford in his six-year tenure.
“They’ve got great pieces,” a charitable Ford said. “All five guys can hurt you in different ways offensively.”
Pangos had 26 points, his best offensive output since he dropped 34 on Arkansas in the Maui Invitational, before he developed turf toe, mostly sabotaging what loomed as a big season.
He helped the Zags check most of the boxes: He hit a couple of threes on a 6-for-14 day, adding 12 free throws. He joined his teammates in being strong with the ball against the Oklahoma State pressure, as they had a manageable 15 turnovers. Gonzaga got offense inside (Przemek Karnowski had 15) and out (Bell chipped in 17 points).
And so disappears a contender from the vaunted Big 12, the No. 1 RPI conference in the nation, one that had won five of its last seven — the two losses to national-title hopefuls Kansas and Iowa State in overtime.
Later, it was mostly a deserted locker room, when Pangos was massaging his legs on a muscle roller, much more matter-of-fact about the win than Gonzaga’s doomsayers.
“You never go into a game thinking you’re going to lose,” he said. “We believe in this locker room, and that’s all that matters.”
You could say Gonzaga did what it always does. Sunday against Arizona, it has the chance to do what it doesn’t.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281