First off — that arena felt NBA ready. Whether it will serve host for a permanent NBA team is the ultimate unknown in Seattle sports, but Climate Pledge Arena certainly appears capable of doing the job.
We’ve seen it rock for sold-out NHL games — no different for a sold-out basketball game. Just ask Gonzaga men’s coach Mark Few, whose Zags played in the new facility for the first time Saturday.
“It was a spectacular environment,” Few said. “It was really cool to be back playing in Seattle, and they’ve just done an unbelievable job with the arena. It’s beautiful it was loud. It was great to see all our fans rally. … I just wish we could have taken care of business.”
Yeah, about that last sentence.
Third-ranked Gonzaga took on 16th-ranked Alabama on Saturday in the Battle of Seattle. And the sold-out crowd made it seem as though the Zags were playing in Spokane.
The fans’ deafening cheers throughout the game provided the same level of intimidation as they would at the McCarthey Athletic Center. But Gonzaga didn’t provide the usual result.
And that’s becoming a bit of a theme.
In falling to Alabama 91-82, the Zags (7-2) lost for the second time in three games. And that win in the middle came against Tarleton State — a second-year in Division I program — in which Gonzaga won by nine.
Time for panic? Come on. This has been the most consistent men’s basketball program in the country over the past several years. But the recent struggles have highlighted areas the Zags must shore up if they want to make national-title run.
Perhaps the most prominent area is shooting. Gonzaga, frankly isn’t all that good at it.
The team entered the game tied for 191st in the nation in three-point shooting percentage, in which they were 33.3% for the season.
That might have been a stat a team could live with 10 years ago. But what teams can do behind the three-point arc is so vital to success in today’s game that a true contender can’t afford to be inaccurate from deep.
Saturday, Gonzaga finished 9 of 23 from deep, but its last two threes came when the game was already decided. The Zags were 2 of 7 from three-point distance in the first half, which ended with them trailing by 16.
‘Bama (7-1), meanwhile, hit 10 first-half triples and ended up 13 of 34 on the night. The Tide also outperformed Gonzaga at the free-throw line, hitting 16 of 22 compared to Gonzaga’s 13 of 25.
Three-point and free-throw shooting also haunted Gonzaga in its 84-81 loss to now top-ranked Duke two games earlier, as it went 6 of 21 from deep and 7 of 11 from the line. It’s only December, but those numbers won’t cut it in March.
Lopsided as this game seemed it would be, however, Gonzaga gave the packed arena something to cheer for. In just over three minutes into the second half, the Zags cut Alabama’s lead to nine after a three from Rasir Bolton. And after trailing by as many as 15 midway through the second half, the Zags cut the deficit to four with 5:32 remaining.
Integral to the run was Seattle native Nolan Hickman, the freshman who scored nine points in span of one minute and 47 seconds. The crowd was booming … and then Gonzaga went quiet.
Trailing 76-72, the Zags had three straight possessions in which they failed to score. First, Julian Strawther missed his first free throw on a one-and-one. Then, he missed an open three. Then, Hickman missed from deep. Alabama went up by seven on its next possession and then climbed ahead by as many as 14.
Freshman Chet Holmgrem, the 7-footer that might end up going No. 1 in the NBA draft, finished with 10 points on 3 of 9 shooting and added four blocks for Gonzaga. His teammate Drew Timme led the Zags with 23 points.
But it was Timme who stressed that the Gonzaga coming out flat is a recipe for losing, and that such starts need to stop.
“I just think we have to have more of a sense of urgency,” Timme said. “We just gotta fix it. But we’ve got a lot of time to fix it. We’ll be fine.”
He is probably right. The Zags almost always figure it out. But for their standards — which are impossibly high — they’re in a bit of a rut right now.