SAN DIEGO — Gonzaga players sat dejected in their Viejas Arena locker room on Sunday night, almost in shock at what had just happened.
Boats have looked more stable after a hurricane. A tissue has looked more together after a sneeze.
These Bulldogs were bested, battered and bewildered after Arizona siphoned every ounce of energy from them in an 84-61 Wildcats win on Sunday night.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few started his post-game news conference by saying, “We ran into a buzz saw tonight,” and that’s a gross understatement.
If Arizona had done what it always has done this season and simply strangled Gonzaga into submission, the Bulldogs may have been able to put together a simple sentence after the game. As it was, the Wildcats were cutthroat on defense and also crafty on offense, shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range while piling up 24 assists.
“We were forcing dumb turnovers,” Gonzaga center Sam Dower said through postgame tears. “We just let it get to us. They caused turnovers we didn’t need to have, and they just took it and ran with it. It built up and built up until they had a 20-point lead.”
They say basketball is best played with the ball on a string, and it was as if Arizona took that string and tied up the Bulldogs’ ankles, wrists and elbows.
After notching 15 steals and forcing 21 turnovers, it’s little surprise that the Wildcats were off to the races, finishing with a 26-12 advantage in fast-break points and an astounding 31-2 lead in points off turnovers.
“It’s not run-and-gun basketball, where you can shoot whatever shot you feel is fit,” Arizona’s Aaron Gordon said. “You have to understand the system, where your spots are, and once you understand that, it just comes easy to you. It’s a very free-flowing game, and our passing game is something unscoutable.”
Wildcat after Wildcat lauded point guard T.J. McConnell for sparking the break, for spreading a contagious form of finding the open man. McConnell had six assists and zero turnovers on Sunday, a nice bounce-back from Friday, when he had just four assists and two turnovers and was held scoreless.
“He’s great at finding people,” said Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who finished with 18 points, five assists, five rebounds and four blocks. “He finds people, and it’s like he sucks them in. Then it’s like, once they’re in, it’s the ‘one-more.’ That’s what we call it. It’s the late pass. Our coach emphasizes, ‘He’s not open, not open, not open, open now!’ It’s split-second timing.”
The Wildcats were like clockwork on Sunday, and it wasn’t just McConnell.
Gordon had six assists, Nick Johnson had five and Gabe York two. Perhaps more impressive, as a team, Arizona had just six turnovers.
“That just goes to show how unselfish this team is,” York said. “T.J., obviously, is the one who starts it off. He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with. It’s contagious. When he starts to pass the ball, it becomes, ‘I don’t want to shoot four times in a row, and if I see someone who’s more open, it’s about getting them the ball.’”
Once the onslaught was over, the Bulldogs were silenced and stunned, searching for answers in a locker-room-turned-morgue.
“We made dumb mistakes over and over and over,” forward Drew Barham said, his eyes scanning back and forth, almost dumbstruck. “We tried to execute simple plays and we just fumbled the ball, went the wrong way, set the wrong screen – it was a cumulative effect. Once it started going, it was so hard to get back to being ourselves.”
Arizona, meanwhile, was itself from the start.
Less than two minutes into the game, Gordon had a dunk and York drained a three-pointer.
Seven minutes in, the Wildcats were up by seven; 10 minutes in, they were up 12 and by the 6:24 mark of the first half, Arizona led by 20, at 40-20.
Forget trying to look like the same old Bulldogs – Gonzaga just tried to resemble a basketball team.
“I felt like the game was going to be decided in the last possession or in the final minutes,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “It felt that way. It’s a credit to us for playing well and being ready, and Gonzaga wasn’t at their best.”
No, not after that buzz saw.