Norvell helps GU turn away San Francisco

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LAST WEEK

Well, that’s the WCC regular season title, folks.

Thanks for coming, and drive safely on your way home.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but Gonzaga’s steely 96-83 victory at San Francisco’s sometimes spooky War Memorial Gymnasium certainly gives the Zags a flying start toward yet another conference title.

A loss to the Dons wouldn’t have made a championship impossible, by any means, but as with all those games at St. Mary’s the past few years, the Zags (16-2, 3-0 West Coast Conference) offered up a clear statement that, yep, everything still runs through Spokane.

Oh, and before we turn back to that “Hell on the Hilltop,” the Zags did have to swat Pacific 67-36 on Thursday night at The Kennel.

That was a night to be thankful for the shot clock, since Pacific tried to let the air out of the ball entirely in attempt to negate the Zags’ overwhelming talent.

The Tigers’ strategy didn’t produce a thrilling night of hoops, but it did put the Zags in the position of having to fly straight to San Francisco — where the well-rested Dons were waiting.

We hate to use clichés here in the Zags Tracker offices, but the final score of the USF game was no indication of the battle that took place.

The Dons (14-3, 3-1) were every bit as good as advertised.

Point guard Frankie Ferrari drove his gang to the limit, and several times they threatened to give the sellout crowd what it craved.

But the difference, tip-toeing close to yet another cliché, was simply that the Zags have been in so many of these games — against the elite teams in college basketball — that they predictably remained unfazed by all the hoopla.

And so with the score tied at 81-81, Zach Norvell Jr. (who had missed all six of his second-half shots) threw in a cold-blooded 3-ball.

Next trip down, fifth-year senior Geno Crandall matched it.

Suddenly it was 87-81 and the Zags had the game by the throat.

“There’s nothing better than executing perfectly when you really need to have it,” offered point guard Josh Perkins, who scored seven straight points himself down the stretch as Gonzaga calmly turned away the upset bid.

There were some differences of opinion (we’re putting that mildly) in the dying minutes of a furious game.

USF Coach Kyle Smith furiously argued that the Dons’ 7-foot center, Jimbo Lull, got fouled on a missed shot from the lane immediately following Norvell’s deep one, and then things truly heated up just before the buzzer.

Sitting on a 10-point lead and with the game in hand, the Zags were uncharacteristically cruel to their hosts — Perkins tossing an unneeded lob to Brandon Clarke for a vicious finishing jam.

The move incensed Ferrari, who seems permanently incensed (in a good way), and the San Francisco guard did his best to hammer Clarke after the basket.

Zags Coach Mark Few didn’t seem pleased by the late dunk, either — but hey, the Dons still have to visit The Kennel ...

So why not rev things up a little bit more?

THIS WEEK

The problem with dominating a conference as Gonzaga has for the past few years (no pun intended) is that, barring something from a parallel universe, there are going to be routine weeks.

This may be one of them.

The Zags entertain a strange Loyola Marymount bunch on Thursday night (another 6 p.m. start) and travel over to Portland on Saturday.

The Lions appeared poised to make a run toward the WCC’s upper echelons early in the year, with non-conference victories over Georgetown, UNLV and Boise State — but somehow the wheels have fallen off.

There’s still a nice 14-3 record to admire, but two of those three losses have come in the past week and a half, a thumping at resurgent Pepperdine and then a bigger surprise, a 71-60 loss at home to St. Mary’s.

On current form, it’s hard to see Loyola frightening the Zags in Spokane, but ...

Crandall is right there in the locker room to remind everyone what he and North Dakota nearly did a year ago.

After Loyola Marymount comes the jog into Oregon and what should be a cruise control affair against the woeful Pilots, who are 7-11 with no quality wins, and 0-3 in the conference — including a home loss to Pacific.

Unless something goes terribly wrong, this week should be more about continuing to shake the rust from Killian Tillie, and getting the 6-foot-10, all-purpose forward more into the flow of things.

Tillie was extremely helpful in San Francisco, hitting a couple of 3-balls and scoring 12 of his 14 points in the first half — not to mention giving Clarke and Rui Hachimura help inside and a few minutes more breathing time.

It’s easy to see that Tillie is still in preseason mode, however. He’s often been a step late on plays, resulting in foul trouble that has cost him time on the floor.

That rhythm will come, though, and the fact that Tillie got some action in the two games before that heavyweight bout in San Francisco was very, very useful.

We may well look back at the fact that both Tillie and Crandall were healthy enough to become major contributors to that victory as pretty doggone important.

It’s obvious now what that pair might have meant in those losses to Tennessee and North Carolina, assuming they’d been completely healthy.

Go head, dream of that undefeated season.

Dreams are free.

THE STORY

Was anyone surprised that it was Norvell Jr. who stepped up and banged in a critical 3-pointer with the game tied late at San Francisco?

If so, you haven’t been paying attention.

Zach can get into dreadful shooting slumps, especially early in games, but it’s fair to say that sort of thing had no effect on him whatsoever.

Sometimes you wonder if he realizes how many shots he’s missed.

Nah.

He’s a shooter.

“He has no conscience,” Few said after one of those streaky performances. “But you need that kind of mentality from a shooter.

“He really has to believe the next one is going in, and the one after that.”

Norvell Jr. has hit a string of crucial shots in his year and a half with the Zags, but why not?

He has the DNA for exactly that.

Zach is a Chicago kid through and through, but he also spent some time in the Southwest as a toddler when his dad played at New Mexico State.

There is a weird comparison running through this story, too.

One of the all-time Aggie greats was shooting guard Jimmy Collins, who averaged 24 points per game as New Mexico State made it to the 1970 Final Four.

Collins went on to become an assistant to Coach Lou Henson at Illinois — landing several all-everything stars from the Chicago area — until Jimmy eventually moved on to become the winningest head coach in the history of University of Illinois-Chicago.

Collins retired in 2010, but if he were still coaching, it’s a guarantee he would have done everything in his power to recruit Norvell Jr., who is almost a clone of Jimmy himself.

“If you’re going to be a shooter,” Collins once said, “you have to be able to miss 10 in a row.

“Then instead of thinking you’re in a slump, you think there’s no way I can miss 11.”

Jimmy Collins, meet Zach Norvell Jr.

There is another comparison, too.

“There is nothing better,” Collins said, “than to be on the road and having the crowd go crazy. Then you come down, hit a long jumper, and there’s this kind of gasp.

“A shooter lives for that.”

You mean, like Norvell Jr. when it was 81-all in San Francisco?

Zach Jr. will tell you that he gained that confidence and competitive fire from his dad, who played and then came home to coach at DuSable Leadership Academy on Chicago’s South Side.

Every day when Zach Jr. was in middle school, he’d traipse over to DuSable, where his father gave him two options — sit in the stands during practice or suit up.

So like any Chicago kid, young Zach played — and just got absolutely killed. He was not only smaller than the high school athletes, but he was the coach’s kid.

Zach Sr. let it happen.

“It mentally made him better and tougher,” Norvell Sr. said during an interview this year.

“They used to take cheap shots at him because he’s my son, and I would make them mad.

“So they would beat up on him, which is cool. But that made him know he can play with bigger, older guys, and it made him fearless.”

San Francisco Dons, meet fearless Zach Norvell Jr.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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