At this point, survival is more important than accumulating style points, so Gonzaga accomplished Job One.
But the 86-76 NCAA tournament win over the No. 15 seed North Dakota State Bison on Friday night was unconvincing.
It wasn’t so much an issue of the No. 2-seed Bulldogs losing this one. More concerning was the way they struggled to dismiss the Bison, and had trouble stopping specific parts of their game.
If the Bison were such a problem, how will Gonzaga stop the kind of elite opponents they’ll meet down the road in the NCAA tournament — starting Sunday when they face Iowa at 4:10 p.m. at KeyArena?
It was the Zags’ 33rd win of the season, a school record. But they needed 23 points from Kyle Wiltjer and a strong second half by guard Kevin Pangos (15 of his 18 points) to pull it off.
By comparison to the 2013 tournament opener, this was a romp. The top-seeded Zags squeaked past No. 16 Southern, 64-58, then lost their next game against a hot-shooting Wichita State team that rode their sizzling streak to the Final Four.
They now have to prove that high seeds aren’t too weighty for them.
But it’s hard for Zags fans to come away from Friday night’s game feeling good about the fact that GU’s two stellar big men, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis (18 combined points), were outscored by Bison reserve forward Dexter Werner (22).
Werner averaged 8 points a game this season, but he looked like the Charles Barkley of Bismarck against the Zags, making 10 of 14 attempts against players six or seven inches taller.
At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, and dressed in the green-and-yellow Bison uniform, Werner looked like a John Deere combine driving up the lane. But he continually got inside and scored against the 7-1 Karnowski and 6-10 Sabonis.
“I’d pick him up on a men’s league team anytime,” Wiltjer said of Werner. “He’s going to be really good.”
In fact, he scored more against the elite Zags than he did against Division II Minnesota-Crookston (15 points).
Bison guard Lawrence Alexander added 19, but that’s his average, as the Summit Conference player of the year. But NDSU got another 13 points from freshman guard Paul Miller on 5-for-6 shooting.
So, the GU interior defense was dented by a 6-6 reserve, and the perimeter defense was scorched by guards that hit 10 of 21 3-point attempts.
In contrast, Iowa dumped Davidson, 83-52. And the Wildcats looked like a much more talented team than the Bison. Given the upsets of Thursday, Gonzaga’s path to the regionals looked easier before this game.
No. 11 UCLA upset SMU, and No. 14 UAB stunned third-seed Iowa State. But those are on the other side of the bracket, and will do the Zags no good if they can’t win Sunday.
Iowa is the seventh seed in the South Regional. Against Davidson, Iowa’s Aaron White scored 26 points. He’s 6-9, 220 pounds. And he can be expected to be a lot more of a challenge than Dexter Werner.
It’s the Zags’ 17th straight NCAA appearance. And coach Mark Few said you can’t ever take any win for granted.
“We celebrated,” Few said. “Anytime you can get a win this time of year, you need to celebrate it.”
The Zags continue to carry lofty expectations. It’s been 16 years since the Bulldogs stood on the threshold of the Final Four, trailing eventual champ Connecticut by only a point in the final minute of an Elite Eight game. And it’s been since 2009 since they advanced to the Sweet 16.
This still looks like the most talented, deep and versatile Gonzaga team in history.
But from this point on, they’ll have to find ways to stop players who might be playing in the NBA in the future.
Not in men’s league games at the local Y.