SEATTLE - The calendar may read December, and snow may have begun falling outside of KeyArena during the late stages of Saturday's Battle in Seattle, but make no mistake. Inside, the action and intensity was worthy of March for a matchup between two teams, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the Connecticut Huskies, with legitimate title aspirations.
In fact, the ultimate script was highly reminiscent of last year's championship game. As then, one team (Gonzaga, playing the non-BCS conference role originated by Memphis) controlled the action much of the night, but a late three-pointer forced overtime and the other squad (UConn/Kansas) never relinquished the lead it took early in the extra session, winning 88-83.
Despite the presence of a loud crowd of nearly 17,000 that made the site anything but neutral, Gonzaga got off to a surprisingly slow start, struggling to convert good looks on offense and committing mental mistakes at the other end. A combination of factors helped them turn things around. The Zag offense got a boost from sixth man Steven Gray, who scored a team-high 23 points, while a zone defense managed to confound the Huskies.
The momentum really turned when UConn center Hasheem Thabeet hit the bench with his second foul at the 8:30 mark of the first half. Thabeet would not play the rest of the half, allowing Gonzaga to turn a 24-15 deficit into a one-point disadvantage at intermission. For whatever reason, Thabeet was never again a factor even when he was on the floor. His biggest contribution --a thunderous dunk early in overtime--resulted in Thabeet drawing a technical for his fifth personal foul.
With the Huskies' 7'3" interior presence sufficiently neutralized, Gonzaga found a rhythm on offense. Having scored 15 points on their first 16 possessions against Thabeet, the Bulldogs scored 22 points in 14 possessions the rest of the half. The big difference wasn't so much Thabeet's shot-blocking as it was his defensive rebounding. The Zags did not have a single offensive rebound before Thabeet's foul trouble; they immediately grabbed four in the first five minutes he was off the floor.
For much of the second half, Gonzaga simply had more weapons on offense than UConn did. With Thabeet's minutes limited, Jeff Adrien (3-of-10 from the floor) and Craig Austrie (2-of-7) struggling and Stanley Robinson still shaking off the rust in his second game back, the Huskies didn't know where to go with the ball against the Bulldogs' zone. On the other end, the Zags got solid production from every starter save a mistake-prone Matt Bouldin and had Gray contributing off the bench. That balance has been a hallmark this season, with Daye the only Gonzaga player using more than 22 percent of the team's possessions.
On the strength of a 12-2 run, the Zags took their biggest lead at 57-46 with 11:52 to play, just before a TV timeout. Then A.J. Price awakened. The Huskies' senior point guard had scored 10 points to that point--already ahead of his single-digit scoring average in what has been a very disappointing season--but they were a relatively quiet 10. There would be nothing silent about Price's performance the rest of the way, starting with a three that got UConn back within single digits. By the seven-minute mark, Price's third triple of the second half made it a two-point game.
It was still a two-point deficit when Price went to the free-throw line with 33 seconds left and a chance to tie it. He missed the first, which could have made him the goat, especially after Bouldin knocked down both of his tries on the other end. Jim Calhoun chose to have his team play without a timeout, and after Austrie missed the potential tying three, the Huskies got the offensive board and kicked back to Price, who made an impossible shot from beyond the arc with a hand in his face, Mario Chalmers-style. A Jeremy Pargo miss later, we had overtime.
Relatively unnoticed in the end-game sequence was Gonzaga's Austin Daye--whose stat line of 13 points, five boards, two steals and two blocks only scarcely does justice to his impact on the game at both ends and impressive showing in front of a host of NBA scouts--picking up his fifth foul. While Thabeet fouled out shortly into overtime, the Zags were hit much harder by foul trouble, losing Micah Downs less than a minute deep in the extra session and Bouldin shortly thereafter.
That spelled doom for a Gonzaga squad that, with backup big man Robert Sacre unavailable because of a foot injury, dressed just 10 players and went seven deep in the second half. UConn was able to key on seniors Pargo and Josh Heytvelt, taking the Bulldogs out of their offense and holding them scoreless for a three-minute span that effectively ended the game.
For the Huskies, playing Gonzaga offered their most challenging tuneup before entering the marathon that is the 2008-09 Big East. For the Zags, this game meant much more. Gonzaga already has strong wins over Tennessee, Maryland and Washington State to its credit, but this was the Bulldogs' chance to prove they could play with anyone in the nation. On that count, Gonzaga succeeded even in defeat. The Zags looked like the superior team much of the night.
What did Gonzaga in were a handful of mental lapses. Pargo, the team's usually-reliable senior point guard, committed five turnovers, including costly ones during the second half. Defensively, the Zags must do a better job of defending the three-point line, which really boiled down to letting Price get free.
Do all that, and this might not be the last time we see Connecticut and Gonzaga play this season. The next matchup could come with a whole lot more on the line.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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