BY Howie Stalwick 12:02AM 03/11/2015

Zags win another WCC title; on to the Dance

LAS VEGAS – March Madness more closely resembled Outright Lunacy when Gonzaga and BYU staged an indoor track meet that passed for basketball Tuesday night at the Orleans Arena.

By game’s end, it was difficult to determine who was more exhausted: The players, the fans or the scoreboard operator.

Gonzaga’s players, accustomed as they are to winning, summoned enough energy to celebrate with one another and their Zag Nuts fans as confetti rained down on the Bulldogs after they wrapped up yet another West Coast Conference tournament championship.

“It was just a great basketball game, played with a lot of possessions,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after an impressive 91-75 win. “A lot of heart showed by both teams.

“I’m ecstatic for our guys. We got back to playing the way we play, the way we played the majority of the season, which is attacking on offense and tough as nails on defense.”

The Gonzaga team that wobbled a bit late in the regular season looked very much like a national championship contender against BYU. The Cougars played gamely and well, but Gonzaga played superbly before a raucous sellout crowd of 8,585.

“You’ve got to give that team credit,” BYU star Tyler Haws said. “They played really, really well.”

“It’s a great team,” BYU coach Dave Rose said, “and I wish them the very best moving forward.”

The Cougars won eight consecutive games, including a 73-70 victory at Gonzaga to end the regular season. The loss halted Gonzaga’s 22-game winning streak and 41-game home winning streak. The Bulldogs had been salivating in anticipation of a rematch with the Cougars in the title game.

“Because we lost, we kind of had a little edge,” Kyle Wiltjer said. “We really wanted to prove ourselves to this (BYU) team.”

Wiltjer also proved he’s one of the best big men in the country. Again.

The junior transfer from Kentucky was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. He led the seventh-ranked Bulldogs with 18 points and 10 rebounds in the title game.

“He’s been everything to the program,” Few said. “He embodies what this program is all about . . .  he’s an incredible teammate.”

“He’s so skilled,” Rose added. “He’s got great size, so the matchups are a problem.”

The Cougars started the day ranked second in NCAA Division I in scoring, but 302nd among 345 teams in points allowed and fouls committed. The Bulldogs exploited both  weaknesses by relentlessly pounding the ball inside to 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski, 6-10 Domantas Sabonis and the 6-10 Wiltjer.

“We have a lot of strengths,” Few said, “but at the end of the day, our bigs are what separates us nationally.”

Six Bulldogs scored in double figures, including Kyle Dranginis. The redshirt junior guard from the basketball hotbed (NOT!) of Nampa, Idaho, came off the bench to give the Bulldogs 10 points, two assists, two steals, two blocked shots and one rebounds in 24 minutes. He also teamed up with master defender Gary Bell Jr. to help limit Haws, the nation’s third-leading scorer, to 15 points on 6-for-14 shooting.

“He can do a lot of things,” Few said of Dranginis. “He’s kind of a Swiss army knife guy.”

The Bulldogs (32-2) tied the two-year-old school record for wins set by the only top-ranked team in Gonzaga history. That team flamed out after two games in the NCAA tournament, adding to a long list of Big Dance tumbles by the Bulldogs.

Before the season began, Wiltjer spoke openly about his belief that Gonzaga could make a run at the national championship. Wiltjer should know: He played on Kentucky’s 2012 national champions.

Wiltjer displayed championship form when asked after the game if Gonzaga could win a championship.

“Yeah – we just got one,” he deadpanned.

Wiltjer’s attempt to add another title to his collection may very well begin in Seattle or his hometown of Portland, two of the eight host sites for the second and third rounds next week. The Bulldogs look like they’ll be a No. 2 seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced Sunday afternoon. Starting out in the Northwest virtually guarantees that several thousand Gonzaga supporters will be in the stands.

Few and Rose campaigned after the game for an at-large berth for the Cougars (25-9). If nothing else, the basketball gods owe a Big Dance invitation to BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth.

One night after he extended his single-season NCAA record of triple-doubles to six – which ties the career record – Collinsworth scored a career-high 28 points. The junior guard added eight rebounds, five assists, a steal and a goodly amount of sweat.

“He’s a great teammate,” Haws said. “Just a really fun guy to play with, because he makes everyone better at both ends. He plays with a lot of energy and passion.”

Sounds like a Zag. Collinsworth would probably be insulted by that description, but it’s the ultimate compliment for the ultimate warrior. If BYU and Gonzaga wind up squaring off in the NCAA tournament, Collinsworth would be in hoops heaven, as would fans around the country.

Not that the Bulldogs aren’t plenty entertaining on their own.

“We can score with the best,” Wiltjer said.

Gonzaga can win with the best, too. Tuesday’s tournament championship was the third in a row for the Bulldogs, and the 13th since 1999. Gonzaga has won three consecutive regular-season titles, and 14 in the past 15 years. Then there’s that little streak of 17 NCAA tournament appearances, including all 16 years Few has been in charge.

It was the year prior to Few’s promotion to head coach that Dan Monson guided the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight in 1999. Few’s teams have never made it past the Sweet 16, but no Gonzaga team had the depth, scoring balance and overall talent of this year’s crew.

As Wiltjer said, “We’ve got all the pieces . . . anything can happen.”

 


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