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TMA: Gonzaga gets one for the rivalry

2/10/2012

The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of last night's best basketball action. It is glad to be back in the blogging saddle after this week's trip to ESPNU's The Experts, not to mention an insane stopover in Chapel Hill, but it feels like it hasn't slept in weeks.

Gonzaga 73, No. 13 Saint Mary's 59: The last time Gonzaga faced their chief WCC rival, a team over which they've held a decade-long advantage, Saint Mary's -- like creepy Kevin Spacey/John Doe -- had the upper hand. The Gaels went off, shooting 30-of-59 from the field, scoring 1.3 points per trip, and looked like not only the best team in the WCC but one of the most fluid and entertaining offenses in the country. Since then, Randy Bennett's team had rolled along, slapping the rest of their WCC opposition aside with preternatural ease. Frankly, the Gaels' West Coast Conference dominance most closely resembled, well, Gonzaga.

Gonzaga has lorded over the WCC for the past 10 years with relative impunity, winning the regular-season conference title in every year and splitting it only twice, most recently with Saint Mary's last season. More often than not, Saint Mary's was the little brother, a plucky, solidly improving program never quite good enough to unseat Mark Few's winning machine. When Saint Mary's unloaded on Gonzaga in the first meeting and followed it up with win after win on their way to an 11-0 WCC start, there was a feeling that this rivalry had taken a definitive turn. Finally, unquestionably, Saint Mary's would pin its hated rival to the mat.

It must have been a sigh of relief for Gonzaga fans -- so used for so long to having their way in league play -- to see their team right the ship and reclaim some intra-rivalry superiority Thursday night. The Zags played one of their best games of the season in this win, scoring 1.2 point per possession and holding Saint Mary's to just .97 ppp on the defensive end. As good as Gonzaga was on offense, they were even better on defense, stifling Matthew Dellavadova and Rob Jones's apparently unstifleable (new word!) perimeter attack. Kevin Pangos (27 points, 8-of-16 from the field, 5-of-6 from 3) led the second-half run that sealed the game, as a raucous Kennel crowd enjoyed every last bucket.

As far as the conference standings go, Saint Mary's is still on top. Gonzaga's two losses still keep them just out of arm's reach from the Gaels, who should by all rights finish their final four WCC games (vs. Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount, at Portland and San Fransisco) with four wins. At the end of the day, that's the victory the Gaels are after: Their first outright WCC title in a decade. Said another way, you better believe Saint Mary's would absolutely love to put Gonzaga in second place -- no split titles, no ties -- for the first time in forever. But Gonzaga is now in striking distance. Saint Mary's is now vulnerable. A bad loss here, a mistake or two there, and the Bennett-led coronation could come to a screeching halt. It's go time.

In any case, this rivalry, which has become one of the best and most underrated in college basketball in recent seasons, is now more equitable than ever. Are there enough bragging rights to go around?

No. 23 Indiana 84, Illinois 71: Don't look now, but Indiana is finishing games. That's bad news for their remaining Big Ten foes, many of whom may not be as talented as the Hoosiers, but could at least count on the occasional late-game meltdown, like Minnesota's win at Assembly Hall or Indiana's 11-point come-from-ahead loss at Nebraska. But in their past two games, the Hoosiers have played good but inferior Big Ten foes (the other being Purdue Saturday) even for much of the game just before turning it on in the second half, stretching leads and cruising to victory in convincing fashion. That may be a sign of maturity, or more well-rounded play. Whatever it is, it's a good sign.

Coverage links of note: Myron popped in to see Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor win his first game at the Barn in his last chance as a senior; his story of Taylor's final victory is here. Meanwhile, Andy checked in on Murray State after the Racers lost their first game of the season -- hey, it had to happen eventually -- at home to Tennessee State. It will be interesting to see what the polls do with the Racers Monday. That's been a fascinating subplot all season, but now it gets especially tricky. Will voters respect the body of work? Or will they judge a home loss to a team ranked No. 190 in Pomeroy's rankings (subscription required) more harshly than most? Is the suspense killing you? No? Pshh. Killjoy.

Everywhere else: "Mississippi State has little trouble with Ole Miss" was the AP's headline for the Bulldogs' 80-70 win over the Rebels, and that just about sums it up. ... It wasn't pretty, but NC State got a win at Georgia Tech, which shot 1-of-17 from 3 and may just find itself in the Bottom 10 later today (hint, hint). At this point in the season, for a team with a cautiously optimistic NCAA tourney outlook, the Wolfpack essentially got a must-win ... Northwestern handled business versus Iowa. ... Miami handled business versus Virginia Tech. ... And in the strange-as-ever Pac-12, streaking Washington was dominated at Oregon, Arizona handed Colorado yet another disconcerting road loss, Cal rolled at USC, and Washington State won a road game at Oregon State. You tell me. I have no idea.