LAS VEGAS — Deep within the satchels of the members of the NCAA basketball committee, among all those cold numbers that underwrite selections for March Madness, is something more visceral: The eyeball test.
It’s designed to come from the gut, something to complement all the steely calculations.
Well, if the committee was tuned in to Gonzaga-BYU at 6 p.m. Pacific Tuesday night, it got an eye-opener, at least for 15 or 20 minutes. The Zags were showstoppers in that stretch, bolting from the gate to a 21-point lead en route to a 75-64 victory over the Cougars for the WCC championship.
The title, of course, ensures Gonzaga’s 16th straight trip to the dance, so subjectivity isn’t a big issue. But even if it doesn’t matter for seeding, the first half was a thing to behold.
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At the end of the evening, red, white and blue confetti was fluttering down from the rafters of Orleans Arena, hugs were as cheap as pretty assists by the Zags, and Gonzaga was going dancing again.
Basketball plays always look best when ball meets net, and the Zags (28-6) completed that end of it famously. They hit six of their first seven shots, 11 of 16, 13 of 20.
Gary Bell Jr. drove to the hole to start it, Drew Barham rained in a three from the left corner to make it 25-9, and a flummoxed BYU called timeout with 10:30 left. If the Zags have played a better 10 minutes this year, feel free to nominate it.
Their guards, led by David Stockton, seemed to sleuth out every crevice available for assists inside, mostly to tournament MVP Sam Dower (20 points, 13 rebounds). On one play in the second half, BYU got lost in the forest of cuts and screens and Stockton gunned a pass for a slam by Dower, criminally unguarded in the lane.
“We came out flying around, confident,” Dower said. “We knew our defense would set up our offense. It was fun, definitely some of the ‘funnest’ basketball I’ve played this year.”
Except for the belated BYU surge, Zag fans were left to debate whether Stockton or Dower deserved the tournament’s top award. Stockton had the driving game-winner against Santa Clara, 21 against Saint Mary’s, then seven assists and even a soaring block in this one. Dower made a record 23 straight free throws before his climactic night.
“We have a saying at Gonzaga: Every dog has his day,” coach Mark Few said afterward on an arena mike. “Sam waited and waited behind a bunch of pros (Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk), and now he’s the MVP of the conference.”
Later, Few inserted a minor quibble with the nod to Dower over Stockton, who was nevertheless all-tournament: “I thought they should have been co-MVPs.”
As for those first 10 minutes, Few said, “They were great. From a coaching standpoint, that’s how you want your guys this time of year. We were in attack mode, playing great defense, getting in the gaps, making plays, rebounding, making the extra pass. Guys were stepping up and making shots.
“David had a real good feel for the pace of the game. We wanted to pick it up, but not crazy.”
BYU (23-11), which that basketball committee will be analyzing closely, will go forward without guard Kyle Collinsworth, felled by a knee injury with 13:42 left. Without him, the Cougars surged back to within eight but no closer.
“They’re really balanced,” BYU coach Dave Rose said of Gonzaga. “It’s a team that’s put together. They can make a good run in the tournament.”
If these WCC titles seem Gonzaga’s birthright — eight of the last 11 — that wasn’t the sense back in early January, when Dower was mending from a back injury, Bell was out with a broken hand and Kevin Pangos was losing a battle with persistent turf toe.
“It makes you wonder when players are dropping,” said Few. “It was a total team thing to get us through.”
Ultimately, with Dower and Stockton peaking, they did it Gonzaga’s way, fifth-year seniors staying longer in a sport in which guys instinctively want to hurry up and leave. The red streamers descending from the rafters, celebrating another Zag title, suggested the wait was worth it.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281