Bulldogs Look To Use Illinois Loss As Learning Moment
By Matt Breach
Special to GoZags.com
SPOKANE, Wash. - It became clear early on, Gonzaga just would not be able to defend Brandon Paul. The Illinois guard was, in Mark Few's words, exceptional.
"I thought he looked like a high-level NBA guy," the Gonzaga coach said after watching Paul torch his club in a battle of undefeated teams.
Paul tallied 35 points to pace Illinois past Gonzaga 85-74 in a nonconference showdown Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. It was the first loss in 10 outings for the Bulldogs.
"We got a lot to learn from this," Gonzaga sophomore Kevin Pangos said. "And we'll get better from this."
That's the key. It's a long season, one that won't be ruined by a single game in December. This isn't college football, after all. This is the type of loss, although disappointing, that could pay huge dividends in conference play and at the end of the season.
"Teams that get better from here to the end of the year are the ones that move on," Few said. "You're not going to win anything the first week of December."
This month will reveal a lot about Gonzaga, though. Saturday's matchup with Illinois was just one of a handful of significant tests awaiting the Bulldogs over the next few weeks. They still have games against Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State pending.
At least Gonzaga won't have to face Paul again. The 6-foot-4 senior was 10-for-16 from the field, including 5-of-9 from behind the arc. He also added four rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.
"He can get his shot anytime he wants," Few said. "We just didn't have a guy who could guard him one-on-one."
"He's a tough cover," Pangos added. "He can do a lot of different things ... and then he's got a great team around him, so it's not like you can just focus on him."
The Fighting Illini continued their 3-point barrage against Gonzaga. They drained 11 of their 26 attempts, upping their season total to 108 makes in just 10 games.
"I don't think we defended as well as we could have," Pangos said. "They are a great shooting team ... but we have to defend better."
Gonzaga, by comparison, was just 5-for-18 from the 3-point line. Often times, it felt as if the Bulldogs were settling for long jump shots, many of which felt rushed, instead of utilizing their advantage in the post. Gonzaga managed just 32 points in the paint, half of which came from Kelly Olynyk, who missed just two of his nine shots.
Gonzaga was also a bit careless with the basketball. They turned it over 16 times, which resulted in 20 Illinois points.
The torrid Illini became just the eighth team in 118 tries to defeat the Bulldogs in the McCarthey Athletic Center since it opened in 2004. The last school, coincidentally, to accomplish the feat was also a Big Ten squad. Michigan State claimed a seven-point win on the Zags' home court last season. That setback, too, came in early December.
"I think there is a lot we can learn from this," Pangos said. "It's too bad it happened in a loss. Even if we didn't play well and got the win, that would have been a better way to learn."
How the Bulldogs absorb that lesson will play out over the next few months, especially in March, when one game can indeed define a season.