SAN DIEGO — In the grand Gonzaga vision, Arizona would have gotten such an argument from the Zags in their NCAA tournament round-of-32 game here Sunday night that perhaps they’d feel a little fear about a face-losing defeat as a No. 1 seed.
Fear? The Zags mostly saw only fast breaks, buzzing past them. Arizona was clinical in bringing Gonzaga’s season to an end, 84-61, at Viejas Arena.
Chief among Gonzaga’s warts on this night was a grievous inability to take care of the ball. The Zags committed the game’s first 11 turnovers, treating the ball like it was dipped in olive oil, while Arizona came 15 seconds short of playing an entire first half without a turnover.
“Dumb plays,” said Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr., and he’d repeat the adjective.
Thus was revisited a familiar Gonzaga trend, that of excelling in its first game of the tournament — it was in the round of 32 for the sixth year in a row — but crashing and burning in the second. As good as Gonzaga was in laying waste Friday to Oklahoma State, the Zags were that bad in a fumble-thumbed 40 minutes against Arizona.
Tempting as it might be to plunge into analysis for that shortcoming, give the Wildcats props for dismantling the Zag attack at the perimeter, and for a telling edge in athleticism at the forward position. This looked less like a failure of scouting than it did of basic inferiority against a team that might win the national championship.
“The Arizona team we saw tonight was as good a team as I can remember that we’ve faced,” said Zags coach Mark Few. “So well-coached, playing like a team, extremely physical, extremely athletic.”
His team was a co-conspirator. Count the ways: Gonzaga committed its 20th turnover of the game with fully 6:38 left, on the way to a season-high 21. Arizona got four guys to double figures before Gonzaga got one. Bell, who had played sensationally in recent games, went scoreless. David Stockton (six turnovers) and Sam Dower Jr. (seven points, four turnovers), fifth-year seniors, had games to forget.
Arizona’s 15 steals were a season high. But only by five.
Most of those accounted for Arizona’s crazy edge, 31-2, in points off turnovers.
Nothing, not even an assist from the scoreboard operators, could help the Zags. In the last minutes, the score was listed as 81-64 instead of 84-61. Whatever, it was dominating.
Good as Arizona was, Few copped willingly to the Zags’ shortcomings.
“We allowed them in a lot of ways to play so great — just a ridiculous amount of turnovers,” he said. “One of the reasons we had 29 wins is, we took great care of the basketball this year.
“When they get out and dunk the ball like that, then offense becomes pretty easy for them — which is one area they’ve struggled a little this year.”
Gonzaga was already down 13-6 when Kevin Pangos went down in a heap with a left ankle sprain, the same one that dogged him late in the season. He returned to hit four threes and gain Few’s praise as “the toughest kid I’ve coached. He’s unbelievable.”
When it wasn’t turnovers, the Zags were eaten alive by freshmen forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (18 points each).
Gordon dunked three times, the Wildcats back-cut for baskets, and the Zags leaked points every way imaginable.
“They had a nice play for our gap defense,” said Few. “They were cutting guys behind us, which we have not seen before this year. Of course, you’ve got to have a special kind of athlete to do that.”
Bell, scoreless for the first time this season, was flummoxed, saying, “I just had an off-game. I don’t know what to say. I couldn’t make a shot today.”
Perspective came hard for Gonzaga’s seniors, even having gone 29-7 and losing last year’s two pros, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris.
On an interview podium, Dower, asked about his last game at Gonzaga, conceded it wasn’t his best, and then broke down. In the locker room, Stockton fought through tears next to a Zag assistant consoling him.
It happens, inevitably, with March Madness. This night, it might have happened to a team that will sidestep the sorrow.