Sports

Gray shines for Gonzaga in loss to UConn

Gonzaga Bulldogs (L-R) Demetri Goodson, Steven Gray and Jeremy Pargo upbeat after taking the lead against the Connecticut Huskies at Key Arena on Dec. 20; Connecticut went on to win 88-83. -
Gonzaga Bulldogs (L-R) Demetri Goodson, Steven Gray and Jeremy Pargo upbeat after taking the lead against the Connecticut Huskies at Key Arena on Dec. 20; Connecticut went on to win 88-83.
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Ex-Spartan scores career-high 23 points in Seattle game.

The first time Steven Gray appeared on national television, he drained seven three-pointers for a career-high 21 points against Davidson in the first round of the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament.

The 2007 BHS graduate did even better on Saturday afternoon at Key Arena. His Gonzaga Bulldogs, ranked eighth in the country, took on the undefeated and second-ranked Connecticut Huskies in a game beamed across the nation.

Gray knocked down 23 points for a new career-best and played a key role in helping his team overcome an early 11-point deficit.

Unfortunately, team results in both cases were the same. Last March, Davidson bounced Gonzaga from the tournament to become the latest Cinderella team.

That was the role the Zags had filled a decade earlier as they began their remarkable ascent to the nation’s elite programs. And against UConn, Gonzaga squandered an 11-point second-half lead, losing to the Huskies 88-83 in overtime.

For Gray personally, there was one major difference between the two games. His shooting touch from mid-to-long range has suffered somewhat of a sophomore slump. His overall field goal percentage is down five points from last year, and his accuracy from three-point range has declined from 46 percent to just over 32 percent.

Apart from a game-high 19 points against Tennessee on Nov. 30 – when he sank four of six three-pointers – the season to date had been relatively quiet for Gray. He had only one other game in which he scored in double figures. But playing against what is maybe the Zags’ best opponent before their likely entry in the NCAA tournament, Gray shifted gears – literally.

Rather than shooting pull-up jumpers, he attacked the basket, with nearly all of his points coming on driving layins.

“I give a lot of credit to the coaches,” he said. “They did a good job giving us the game plan. They said we could go to the basket on these guys. Things just opened up. The lanes seemed to be wide open for most of the game.”

Coupled with the rest of his stat line – seven rebounds (also a career best), four assists, two steals and no turnovers, Gray outplayed his three heralded teammates – seniors Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heytvelt and sophomore Austin Daye – who are frequently identified as pro prospects. UConn quickly took the raucous crowd of nearly 17,000 Gonzaga fans, who packed the Key out of the game, by jumping out to an early 13-2 lead.

The early run threatened to turn the much-ballyhooed Battle in Seattle into the Rain City Rout (or, perhaps more accurate in terms of the weather outside, Snuff in the Snow). After a second Zag field goal and the first TV timeout five minutes into the game, Gray – a starter for almost every game last year after missing the first 10 games because of a broken wrist, but relegated to sixth-man status this year – came onto the court.

Apart from the opening moments of the second half, he stayed on the floor as he logged a career best 39 minutes.

It didn’t take long to make his presence felt. After a free throw and a Pargo dunk livened up the crowd, Gray took a pass on the right side from Pargo and drove to the hoop. In the next 10 minutes, he scored 11 more points, culminated by a three-pointer. He also dished off twice to account for almost all the Bulldogs’ points as they narrowed the lead to 33-28.

By this point, the crowd was definitely back in the game and the noise levels in the Key were approaching aircraft takeoff decibel levels. The sound soared into the stratsophere when a Pargo layin with just under two minutes remaining gave the Zags their first lead at 37-36. Two foul shots gave UConn a 38-37 halftime lead. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Gonzaga went on a 17-6 run after Gray re-entered the game early in the second half. His layin made the score 57-46 with 12 minutes remaining – the Bulldogs’ largest lead – and Gonzaga appeared to be on the way to its ninth victory against a single defeat.

“I think we might have had a mental lapse for a little bit,” Gray said. “That’s always going to happen in the course of games.”

Whatever the reason, within three minutes the Huskies had cut the deficit to four. The Huskies closed to within two at the 2:30 mark, though Gray fed Daye soon afterward to make the score 72-68. But Daye picked up his fourth foul 30 seconds later and UConn narrowed the score to 72-70.

After Gray missed a short jumper in the lane with just over a minute left, the Huskies had an inbounds play under their own basket. Daye made the athletic move of the game, deflecting the pass and while it was still in the air leaping and deflecting the ball off the passer.

Pargo squandered the opportunity, hurling a very ill-advised long pass that the Huskies easily controlled even though he had several close-by teammates. Daye quickly picked up his fifth foul, and the Huskies narrowed the score to 72-71. Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin countered with a pair of free throws with 25 seconds remaining.

After missing a three-point attempt, the Huskies controlled the rebound. Guard A.J. Price took an outlet pass just to the left of the top of the key and his shot dropped cleanly through the twine to knot the score with 7.8 seconds remaining. Pargo took the inbounds pass, put his head down and tried to drive to the basket. The UConn defense collapsed on him and stripped the ball away to send the game into overtime.

Micah Downs fouled out less than a minute later, and when Bouldin followed him within 30 seconds, the Huskies had just a one-point lead. But with three of their primary shooters gone and playing what coach Mark Few termed “the craziest lineups we never, ever had in practice,” the Zags couldn’t keep up with the Huskies. A UConn trey with a minute and a half to go to made the score 84-77 and essentially put the game out of reach for Gonzaga.

After the game, Gray went into the stands to meet family and friends and sign autographs for young fans and expressed his happiness with Gonzaga.

“I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, but it’s a perfect fit,” he said. “Being with the guys, the coaching staff, the whole structure of the program, both athletics and academics. I can’t see myself anywhere else.”

It’s likely that Zag fans can see even more of Gray next year, as both Downs – who supplanted him in the starting lineup this year – and Pargo are seniors. Heytvelt, the team’s leading scorer, is also departing. In the meantime, there’s a lot of basketball yet to be played this season. “We’ll try to come back and win most of our games the rest of this year and we should be all right,” Gray said.

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