Loyola Marymount was on its way toward coordinating, like, the largest upset of all time.
With 10 seconds to go and his Loyola Marymount team trailing by one against WCC could-have-been Santa Clara on Friday night, Lions coach Max Good hiked up his pants, sat down, and folded his arms across his chest. He did not gesture or shout. His spiked hair rested in the shape of a dorsal fin, his jowls in the beleagured design of a grouper fish, or a constipated Woody Paige.
He just spectated, as would the wife of a hard core fan who flew in from Playa Del Ray not expecting even to lose by ten, as Anthony Ireland curled like cat down the lane and hit a go ahead jumper that would put 1-15 LMU ahead for good, pushing an already improbable run further toward the deepest of improbabilities: matching up against, somehow contending with, Number One Gonzaga Bulldogs™.
On a Saturday that seemed to feature endless amounts of poor play, where teams with withered resumes rose like spoiled cream to the top of the March Milk Cup, perhaps the poorest performance relative to of all came from the team that's supposed to be the best, even though a majority of the country appears to think it isn't. And if he had truly wanted to gesture a grand silent expletive to Mark Few and Co. after all the seasons of slaughter, Good could have simply kicked back and watched again.
Because while his Lions played fine - nicely considering they'd played three tough games in three straight days - teams do not lose to a team by 45 points and go out and "beat" them five weeks later. They lose to a team by 45 points and then receive a gift five weeks later.
Thankfully, distracted by a mixture of an overtime Ohio Valley Conference Final (two-hour and twenty minute game windows, ESPN, please) or the annual Duke-North Carolina hype pageant, most of the country missed a Zags team that did not push tempo (where do commentators get this idea that the 223rd fastest team in the country likes to "run"?), did not utilize screens or basket cuts, or plays, or anything, really. Meanwhile, Anthony Ireland did more agile, cat-like things and got his fellow Lions (#felineentendres) involved.
After shooting 1 of 7 from three in the first half and 0 of oh-my-God-why? from common sense land in the first half, Gonzaga resorted to what should be its fourth or fifth line of defense: simply out-athleticizing lesser athletes at random will. LMU's shot-making ability and it's ability to capitalize on Zag mistakes largely evaporated. Gonzaga dunked and three-pointed it's way to a double-digit victory.
The win marked an improvement for LMU over its last performance against Gonzaga. The team will not play in any of the four post-season tournaments. There is no telling where the program is headed without Ireland and Hamilton, and had the Lions exited on tournament day one versus Portland the calls night've came more definitively for Good's head. After laying the in-league egg that Pepperdine was supposed to, LMU deserves a nice pat on the back for winning three times as many games in the conference tournament as it did during the conference season.
The win marked a significant setback for Gonzaga in that it didn't play anywhere close to the level suggested by it's meaningless-but-not-actually-meaningless ranking. Saturday night was the first time Gonzaga ever played as the AP's best team, a distinction that felt more like a fun reward for 15 years of over-achievement than a reflection of reality, and that faced fierce criticism from college basketball's more traditionally-minded circles.
It does not matter that 21-point favorite Gonzaga "found a way to win" on Saturday because the only wins that matter to a franchise struggling for blue chip acceptance are NCAA Tournament wins, and this "way" of winning - relying on altheticism and quickness and better shot-making ability - against the 10th best college basketball league's JV squad simply will not work in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.
For the entirety of Gonzaga's post-Monson run, college basketball fans have loved to question with a Gottlieb-ian smirk the Zags' "toughness." Fans are correct to question this in the sense that Gonzaga's play sometimes severely lacks focus and physicality. They are incorrect in the assessment that this is a constant problem. Lack of intensity is an intermittent, random, horribly un-diagnosed problem. It can strike the Zags against Duke as frequently as it can strike against Duquesne. On Saturday night it struck against 222nd-ranked LMU, just 11 days before the Zags will face more pressure than ever to make a deep run against tougher teams in the NCAA Tournament, a task it already struggles with routinely.
Gonzaga was the story of the night, not out the short-sided predilections of your correspondent, but because for 25 minutes it was dangerously close to becoming the joke of the college basketball world.
Or maybe, to those outside of the west coast who happened to tune into tonight's earlier-than-usual-tip time, it already is.