Zags complete a sweep on East Coast swing
BOSTON -- A week ago, Gonzaga was in Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout.
On Thursday night, the Bulldogs were forced into overtime with Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia and survived with a five-point win. On Saturday, Gonzaga was in Boston to play Connecticut in what was essentially a home game for the Huskies. The Zags won 85-82, completing an East Coast sweep.Just how notable was this trip? "It's as impressive a road swing as we've had," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after his team survived UConn at a partisan TD Banknorth Garden. It must be noted that Gonzaga no longer travels like a mid-major. The Zags chartered from Spokane to Philadelphia, from Philly to Boston, and they left Boston after the game Saturday night on two booster-sponsored jets so they didn't have to wait for a 6 a.m. departure from Logan Airport on Sunday morning. "The accommodations we have are nice, the hotels and the chartered flights and the comfortable beds," said senior forward David Pendergraft, who outworked the Huskies with a gritty 10 points and five boards. But this was still a legit two-game road swing, even if the NCAA Tournament selection committee will count Saturday's as neutral. "It was 90-10 percent their fans, so this was huge for our team and our program and our confidence," Pendergraft said. "I've been on two top-10 teams at Gonzaga, and I don't think either one could go on this East Coast swing with the amount of travel and do what we've done." The Zags haven't won back-to-back significant road games like these since beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion and Washington in Seattle in a three-day period in the 1999-2000 season, Few's first as head coach after the Zags' Elite Eight appearance the previous March. But those games were on the West Coast, and there was a trip home in between. Granted, the Hawks and the Huskies are not top-ranked teams right now. But winning at Hawk Hill against a likely Atlantic 10 title contender and possible NCAA team, then taking out a likely Big East top-seven team and a possible NCAA entrant, is nothing to dismiss.
The Zags (7-1) aren't even whole yet. Just wait until they get Josh Heytvelt back later this month. Six-foot-11 Heytvelt might be remembered more for his transgressions (February arrest on a charge of possessing hallucinogenic mushrooms). But the junior, out with a broken foot, is also a big talent. He averaged 15.5 points and 7.7 rebounds last season and his expected return could be as soon as the Dec. 20 game against Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Freshman guard Steven Gray, who is out with a fractured wrist, also might return for that game. Few calls Gray one of the team's top shooters.
"We've got endurance and perseverance with this team that others didn't have," Pendergraft said. "It's carried over from last year after that whole episode [Heytvelt's arrest]. We've knuckled down."So, adding Heytvelt and Gray will "make us deeper. It's going to be fun once those guys get in shape. We're in contention for a Final Four and a national championship once we get those guys back." Gonzaga will be a contender once fully healthy because, as UConn assistant coach George Blaney said, the Zags don't stop playing. They continue to come after a team. So far this season, the only game in which the Zags have had a long-lasting lapse was their one loss -- to Texas Tech by 10 in the Great Alaska Shootout semifinals. "We let Texas Tech irritate us, and guys got frustrated, including myself," said Gonzaga junior point guard Jeremy Pargo, who scored 23 points against the Huskies with five assists and zero turnovers. "I only had two points [against the Red Raiders], and that tells the story. Other guys got frustrated and were out of character. We didn't play Gonzaga basketball, and if we don't do that, we don't win." Gonzaga basketball is defined in many ways, but notably with perimeter shooting like that by Pargo (4-of-7 on 3s), Matt Bouldin (3-of-5), Pendergraft (3-of-9) and Micah Downs (2-of-5). Against UConn, the Bulldogs also showed gritty board and loose ball work of Pendergraft (five boards) and Downs (11 boards). Pendergraft might not have had a monster output on the boards, but his three offensive rebounds seemed to matter at the right time. "He's our strong man, and he's the ultimate Zag," said Bouldin, a sophomore. "It's weird. I didn't know what that meant, but he really is [Mr. Zag]. He's unselfish. He'll do anything for us, and it shows. He's the strongest guy on our team. He doesn't look like it, but he's our MVP."
And the Zags always seem to be in close games, so that means they have to have players who can make free throws late. Austin Daye, who might have had his worst game of the season after averaging a team-high 14.3 points entering the game, didn't convert a field goal. Yet, the freshman is automatic at the free-throw line. Daye had made 35 of 39 free throws before Saturday. He made 5 of 6, including 3 of 4 in the final 15.8 seconds after playing less than 10 minutes.
"I wanted the ball," Daye said. "I didn't have a particularly good game, so I wanted the ball."
And, of course, in classic Gonzaga scheduling fashion, its next opponent is no chump. No. 19 Gonzaga returned home Saturday night to get ready for Wednesday's matchup with Washington State (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET). The sixth-ranked Cougars remained undefeated with a comeback win at Baylor on Friday.Few said he can't remember a time when the Cougs and Bulldogs both entered their game ranked nationally. "My first couple of years at GU, not too many people asked for WSU tickets," Pendergraft said. "Now I'm getting calls from people out of the woodwork and people I haven't heard from in 15 years. This is a great rivalry, and we go home to our floor where we don't lose, and we owe them one [after losing in Pullman last season]."
The Zags' schedule lightens up with home games against Cal State-Northridge and Northern Colorado in the next two weeks. But then there are more road trips, this time to Oklahoma on Dec. 20 and a game against Tennessee in Seattle on Dec. 29. Gonzaga also will travel to Memphis on Jan. 26.The Zags should be whole for those last three name games, and that's why this East Coast sweep should have shelf life come March. "I hope it's factored in when everyone does the analysis of schedules at the end of the year," Few said. "This is an incredible stretch, I think."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.