Crumpacker: Zags and Cougars Set For Finals Clash
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 BYU Tuesday at 6 PM PT on ESPN
By John Crumpacker, #WCChoops Columnist
It is often said that a rising tide raises all ships.
That may be true, nautically speaking, but when Gonzaga is that tide and the Zags are playing at peak efficiency, all other ships are overwhelmed, dashed upon the rocks and sunk.
San Francisco was that other ship on Monday night in a semifinal game of the WCC men’s basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena. From the outset, Gonzaga shot the ball as if the rims had the diameter of a hula hoop.
Jumpers, dunks, layups, 3-point shots, almost everything was going in for Gonzaga, from a variety of sources as the tournament’s top seed built leads of 34-17, 42-22 and finally 48-27 at halftime. The Zags shot 18 of 28 overall (64.3 percent) and made 8 of their 14 attempts from 3-point range.
“As a leader, I was trying to keep guys’ heads in it,’’ USF’s Nate Renfro said. “It’s tough. Some guys get discouraged. My job is to keep our heads in it. It was hard to do that tonight, and it showed.’’
Gonzaga went on to post an 88-60 decision over the Dons and will now face BYU on Tuesday night for the WCC championship. It’s the 21st straight year the Zags have made it to the title game. Ponder that for a moment. Most of the players on the current Gonzaga roster weren’t even born when the team they would one day grow up and play for was playing for conference titles.
“It’s great to advance to another final. That’s an unbelievable streak we have going,’’ coach Mark Few said. “It’s not easy when everyone is telling them that (expectations of championships). People book tickets down here for the Monday-Tuesday games. These guys do a masterful job all year dealing with expectations. We get everyone’s best shot in the tournament.’’
After disposing of No. 2 Saint Mary’s 85-72 in the other semifinal, BYU is keen to do just that. Forward Yoeli Childs was magnificent for the Cougars, scoring 33 points, and his robust play inspired his teammates, who looked fresh and joyful while the Gaels looked spent and ineffectual.
“The guys know we’re capable of beating anyone. We believe that,’’ BYU coach Dave Rose said. “We feel like we’re built to win this tournament. We’re built to play three games in four days and win them. We’ve got a tough challenge tomorrow. This was a really satisfying win for our guys.’’
If BYU, now 24-9 overall, plays on Tuesday night against the No. 1 seed like it did on Monday night against the No. 2 seed, this WCC championship game could be epic. Furthermore, for BYU to make the NCAA Tournament, it will have to win the championship, while Gonzaga, 29-4, is safely in based on its season credentials.
In the first semi, that Zag magnifique, Frenchman Killian Tillie, was almost perfect as he hit on 10 of 11 field goals, all five 3-point attempts and his only free throw for 26 points. As a team Gonzaga finished 32 of 60 and 12 of 26 beyond the arc. Freshman Zach Norvell Jr. helped his team start fast by making 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
“I’ve been making them (lately),’’ Tillie said. “Josh (Perkins) is doing great passing us the ball. He’s always mad when I don’t shoot. I’ll keep shooting. It’s fun.’’
Asked about the one shot that got away, Tillie said, “I’m kind of mad. It’s OK. It’s OK.’’
Compared to Saturday’s quarterfinal game, when the Zags let Loyola Marymount hang around for the first 30 minutes, this time they started out red-hot and took whatever starch the Dons had in their uniforms out, completely.
“We just love playing basketball,’’ Perkins said. “It’s something we cherish. Motivated is a word you can say, but we just love playing with and for each other. I do everything I can to help the team. If I need to score, I will score for my team.’’
To try to stem that rising tide that is Gonzaga, USF coach Kyle Smith used 12 players, 11 of whom showed up in the scoring column, including such little-seen Dons as Mladen Djordjevic, Taavi Jurkatamm and Erik Poulsen.
Smith said he went with those three when he realized the Zags had Tillie, Johnathan Williams and Rui Hachimura on the court at the same time.
“It caught us out there a little small,’’ Smith said. “We looked a little fatigued. Jordan (Ratinho) is a good barometer. It was hard for him to get shots. I thought fresh legs would help. They just kept coming.’’
All the way to the championship game and a date with BYU. During the regular season, Saint Mary’s beat the Cougars twice, including an exasperating 74-64 loss in overtime at the Marriott Center in which the home team led for 38 minutes, to no avail.
In this rubber match, BYU did a splendid job of blocking out on the boards and limiting WCC Player of the Year Jock Landale to four rebounds to go with his 23 points. Guard Jordan Ford led the Gaels with 27 points.
“They were blocking me out, like any good basketball team,’’ Landale said. “I have to go after rebounds better. It’s got to be better.’’
Another aspect of the game that gets an ‘A’ for BYU was the efficiency of its guards penetrating and dropping the ball off to its front-line players for high-percentage shots. The Cougars shot better than 60 percent from the field in both halves and finished a crisp 33 of 54. Childs made three of his team’s five 3-point shots.
“It’s huge to make the right play,’’ Childs said. “We did that tonight. The most important thing was getting the win. When we have that mentality, we’re tough to guard. ‘’
The game turned in BYU’s favor around the middle of the second half with a sequence of plays that demonstrated its efficiency and verve. T.J. Haws hit a floater for 57-54, Childs sank a 3-pointer for 60-54, Dalton Nixon scored at the basket and converted the free throw after being fouled for 63-54, Elijah Bryant hit two free throws for 65-55 and later went baseline for a layup that made the score 67-55.
That was it for the Gaels, who had nothing left and no answer. They are left to hope that their 28-5 record is good enough to get in the NCAA Tournament, which coach Randy Bennett believes should not be an issue.
“We’re the second-winningest team in the country, come on,’’ he said. “Do we need to discuss that? It’s hard to win 28 games. It’s hard to only lose five games. I don’t think it should even be a discussion.’’
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards. Crumpacker has been covering #WCChoops since the 2014-15 season.