SAN DIEGO: All day long you give in to antsiness, worrying about Gonzaga, tying your nerves into a Windsor knot.
The Zags don’t make mistakes. The Zags have a Ph.D. in chemistry. Did you know Gonzaga refers to itself as “Guard U?”
Get me missing persons.
In a game that had no suspense, you had to sift through the rubble to find any evidence that Gonzaga showed up Sunday night.
Arizona won 84-61 in a dunkfest so lopsided that at one point the Zags had 11 turnovers and Arizona none.
That only happens in a JV league.
“They were a highlight reel,” said Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos.
Here’s what happened: Arizona flushed ’em out, forced Gonzaga to play an open-court game when the Zags’ only chance was to play turtle-ball.
Arizona didn’t play nice.
The Zags’ best player, senior forward Sam Dower, was moved to tears in the formal media interview session, sniffling and finally crying. He shot 3 for 12 from the field. Everywhere he went, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had a hand in his face. Sometimes four hands.
The Zags had so much difficulty keeping up you’d have thought they were a No. 16 seed.
After Gonzaga turned the ball over for its season-worst 17th time — and there were still 12 minutes remaining — Nick Johnson overhauled Pangos on what appeared to be a break-away layup. Johnson stuffed Pangos’ shot, gained possession, turned to run up-court and mouthed, “That way, baby!” as he headed to the UA basket.
It was “that-way-baby” all night.
Maybe it wasn’t Arizona’s best game of the year (it would be hard to surpass two Colorado blowout wins), but who cares? It was the season’s most meaningful game and the Wildcats were not only equal to the occasion, but more.
The Wildcats were so good that Zags coach Mark Few said he couldn’t recollect playing a better team. Few has been the coach at Gonzaga for 15 years, for 493 games. He made an oblique reference to a Syracuse team the Zags played in the NCAA Tournament a few years ago, but just shrugged.
“That’s the best team we’ve played that, gosh, that I can remember,” he said.
Gonzaga lost 98-77 to No. 1 seeded North Carolina at the 2009 Sweet 16, and the Tar Heels went on to win the national title. You’d think Few would remember that team, but on Sunday at the Viejas Arena, Arizona tipped the Zags upside down and erased their memory bank.
It was national-title good.
The UA was so dominant that even Sean Miller said it was beyond his expectations.
“I felt like it was going to be decided in the last possession or in the final minute,” he said. “It’s a credit for us playing well and being ready.”
Arizona exploited Gonzaga’s lack of athleticism and quickness, which isn’t kind to the word exploited. The Zags had 21 turnovers. Even at its worst this season, in a February loss at BYU, Gonzaga had not turned the ball over more than 16 times.
Now, for the first time since losing to Oregon and UCLA this month, Arizona will again be widely viewed as a likely Final Four club. That kind of talk can only get you beat when you’ve got San Diego State and possibly Wisconsin looking in your grill, but you can’t beat Gonzaga by 23, with the college basketball world watching, and just shrug it off and say, “We got lucky.”
On Saturday, Few left a few mouths agape when he suggested that Arizona and Gonzaga have “yo-yo’d back and forth” as the West’s two leading college basketball factories, No. 1 and No. 1-A.
It was a bit like hearing a Boise State football coach declare that the Broncos and Oregon have ruled the West for the last 10 or 15 years.
Few not only omitted San Diego State and UCLA, which won 13 NCAA Tournament games in a three-year period, which is more than the 11 Gonzaga has won in a decade, but the heart of the matter is that Gonzaga plays in the basketball-lite West Coast Conference and it’s just not the same game as the Pac-12.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Zags had an 11-10 NCAA record since losing to No. 1 Arizona in a 2003 double-overtime classic. The “best” of those 11 victories was against a No. 6 seed, St. John’s, and almost all the others were against double-digit seeds like Valpo, Winthrop, Akron and Western Kentucky.
If nothing else, Arizona had its honor at stake on Sunday. If nothing else, the Wildcats do not share the billing with Gonzaga any more than the Oregon Ducks consider Boise State its football equal.
Asked what made it difficult to play the Wildcats, Gonzaga guard Kyle Dranginis said “all their different weapons that they have. I mean, everybody can score, everybody does something well for their team. They have a lot of explosive guys who are hard to stop.”
The Wildcats won’t have to be that good to beat San Diego State on Thursday — that would be unrealistic. But they’ll have to be in the same neighborhood.
They don’t have Gonzaga to kick around anymore.