A common reaction after Gonzaga's heartbreaking loss to the team who shall not be named was "how did that happen?" Well, here's how.
With 6:52 left in the game, Kyle Dranginis hit a 3 following a beautiful cross-court pass from Domantas Sabonis to put the Zags ahead 61-51. Following the shot, TV analyst Corey Williams made a remark about the Zags showing great composure...which was probably the sign that it was all going to fall apart.
We pick up after the Team From Moraga ("TFM") hit a pair of free throws. The ensuing possession highlighted a problem that has plagued the Zags all season: unforced turnovers.
TFM blew the fast break out of the turnover, but the Zags couldn't capitalize as their very next possession resulted in a shot clock violation. The Zags offense used up 21 seconds of clock before they initiated an entry pass into Domas who was 18-feet away from the basket. This is the type of play the folks in the "Mark Few coaches his team not to lose, rather than to win" camp point to when making their argument. Passivity for a huge portion of the shot clock led to this violation
The TFM cut the Zag lead down to six after Dane Pineau backed Wiltj down into the restricted area before turning around for an easy layup. The bloodshed continues on the next play with another unforced error from the backcourt. I'm still not sure if Perkins thought E-Mac would slide over or he just threw a horrendous pass, but either way the result is the same. Also, that's 3 empty possessions in a row for those who haven't closed their browsers already.
The TFM converted an and-1 on the next play, cutting the lead down to 3. E-Mac stopped the bleeding with a 3 on the next possession, which put the Zags back up by 6, and unfortunately gave him the last of his 23 points (you know why I say unfortunately). Sadly, Joe Rahon hit a contested 3 to cut it back down to a three-point deficit.
Another turnover results in a fast break layup, and sends the crowd into a frenzy with the Zags' lead down to a single point. Credit is due for the steal, and you can't fault Perkins too much there as his man helped on the trap even though he tried to clear out. It's easy to say after the fact that we don't like the play, but most of us would be okay with a Domas post-up.
This is just a brutal possession to watch. None of the screens set in this possession were effective, which in turn created no advantage for the ballhandler. I've preached on this forum for Perkins to be more aggressive and attack the basket as that is when he's most successful, but the whirling dervish layup attempt is not what I had in mind since no one should ever consider that a good option.
Naturally, Gonzaga gave up the lead on the ensuing possession and Mark Few decided to use his last timeout at the 2:42 mark to regroup. Notably, no substitutions were made, as Few stuck with a lineup of Perkins-McClellan-Dranginis-Wiltjer-Sabonis. I would have stuck with that lineup as well, as the lack of depth with this year's squad presents no reliable answer on the bench. While that lineup was responsible for coughing up the lead, change for the sake of change is not a theory I support without a legitimate rationale for it.
Back to the action, the play after the timeout resulted in a good three-point look for Wiltj, but the shot rimmed out. Sometimes the basketball gods are just cruel.
The Zags got a stop on the defensive end, but failed to capitalize on offense as the possession ended with a charging foul on Wiltj and an injury to Domas' left hand. I like that the play got something going to the basket, as that's typically a good option when a team is struggling to get anything to fall, and you want the ball in your best player's hand, but you can see the TFM keying on Wiltj and Domas on every play. On Kyle's drive, there are 5 opposing players packing the lane with their eyes locked on him and Domas. This is where not having reliable secondary options have really hurt the Zags this year.
After a timeout by the other team, the Zags completely fell asleep on defense as Domas got beat by a back screen and neither E-Mac or Wiltj intercepted the cutter. It was E-Mac's man who set the screen, so he has to communicate and hedge the cutter, or make the switch if he sees that Domas can't recover.
The closing 1:19 featured blown free throws, another problem that has plagued the Zags all year, and of course that horrendous foul call on Domas that I don't need to put here because it's been seered into your memory. But, it was the plays above that really set the table for how this game would end, and the issues that arose are ones that continue to plague the Zags at inopportune times.
The TFM hit some tough shots that were contested down the stretch, and while it's hugely annoying, you have to accept those. But, they got a lot of help in the form of a string of brutal possessions from the Bulldogs. There wasn't anything too egregious about the sets GU ran down the stretch, but the execution was very very disappointing.
Make no mistake, McKeon Pavilion is a very difficult gym to play in for visiting teams. The gym is a hot, humid, concrete box that can induce claustrophobia in even the most strong-willed individuals. It resembles a small high-school gym more than a collegiate basketball arena, and the consequence is a loud hotbox that feels like the crowd is right on top of you. It is not an easy task to go into that environment and win, especially when you're always the team being hunted. With that said though, the Zags should have won this game.
This was a team loss in every aspect. There's no one player to blame, and no single coaching decision to point to. Just about everyone made a mistake in a key moment. Hopefully, it was a valuabe learning experience for them. The same problems that have cropped up all year--turnovers, missed free throws, and defensive communication--all reared their ugly heads in this loss. Improved decision-making, concentration and confidence at the line will go a long way to mitigating those issues. With the season marching towards crunch time, it's time for the Zags to remedy them before its too late.