SALT LAKE CITY — Elias Harris gave himself over to a night of candid self-examination.
Nobody had to remind Gonzaga’s senior forward that more is expected of him than a mere five points in an NCAA tournament game. And he didn’t need to see the film of his shots being blocked by Southern’s big men to once again feel the frustration of very literal rejection.
His top-seeded Zags had escaped an unexpected challenge by the 16th-seeded Jaguars on Thursday, and the most obvious Gonzaga statistical shortfall was Harris scoring 10 points below his season average, and missing eight of his 10 shots.
“Yesterday wasn’t the game I wanted to have,” Harris said during Friday interviews as the Zags prepped for tonight’s third-round game against Wichita State. “But I’m mature enough to know I have to keep attacking, keep rebounding ... play at a higher level.”
Harris’ influence goes beyond scoring and rebounding totals, as his power drives and explosive dunks have, for four seasons, established a tone of bruising, above-the-rim interior play for the Zags.
Traditionally, if you’re going to try to meet Harris at the rim, you’d better bring everything you’ve got, and realize you might end up with a shoeprint somewhere on your torso.
But the Jaguars packed the paint so tightly that Harris had trouble fighting through the contact.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Harris said of the Jaguars, who blocked eight Gonzaga shots – a
season-high. “They did a great job and competed really hard.”
While frank about his Thursday night period of introspection, Harris didn’t reveal having had nightmares of 10-armed demons hacking at his extremities.
“When I caught the ball on the block and turned around, there was nothing but blue jerseys all around me in the paint,” he said. “They were determined to take away our inside game.”
Gonzaga (33-3) got its No. 1 ranking and top-seeding based largely on the strength of Harris and center Kelly Olynyk dominating the lane, often in a collaborative high-low post tandem. But when Harris is throttled, the Zags’ performance is correspondingly diminished, reducing them from an elite team to one that might struggle against a 16th seed.
In their locker room Friday, most of the Zags echoed sentiments of relief over Thursday’s 64-58 win but not grave concern over the narrow margin. It’s not uncommon for high seeds to face surprising challenges in the course of a tournament, they pointed out.
“We got that one out of the way,” said guard Gary Bell Jr., who starred at Kentridge High School. “Now we’re moving on. A lot of people are saying we’re going to lose because we almost lost to Southern. You see it on ESPN, but we put that out the window and are focusing on Wichita State.”
Well, they didn’t throw the critical comments completely out the window, choosing to remember those that supply the best motivation.
“We’re going to come out way more aggressive and with a bigger chip on our shoulders,” Bell said.
Guard Kevin Pangos had a scrappy tone to his comments on Friday, too, when asked how the Zags expected to deal with Wichita State’s noted physical defense.
“Be physical right back,” he said. “We don’t shy away from that; our team is tough.”
Coach Mark Few was asked whether the near upset by Southern was alarming.
Few took a couple verbal false starts before finding the answer he wanted to express the bottom-line finality of tournament games. “I don’t think we need to worry about aesthetics,” he said. “We’re not getting style points and we’re not getting graded, you know. You either win or your season is over.”
What he’ll need tonight is a performance out of Elias Harris that is more typical of his previous 134 games as a Zag, and his 26 career double-double performances.
“I had a night to think about it ... and now forget about it,” Harris said. “I’m going to take a different approach to attacking and playing with more energy. I can do better, I can come out with more energy and more will.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org