Sam Dower, Zags prolong Xavier struggles

CINCINNATI -- The pregame chatter was all Xavier, all the time.

Understandably so. For the first time in four games, the Musketeers were back at full strength. For the first time since their ill-fated, short-handed trip to Hawaii -- which saw them lose to Long Beach State and Hawaii just a few days after a home blowout loss to Oral Roberts -- freshman forward Dezmine Wells had finished his suspension and rejoined star guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons in the starting lineup.

For the first time since their Dec. 10 brawl with Cincinnati, which presaged these suspensions and losses and disappointments, the Musketeers had a chance to regroup. They had a chance to end these lines of inquiry. They had a chance to move on.

Somewhere, in all this talk about Xavier, we may have forgotten one salient fact.

Gonzaga's pretty good, too.

"That was a heck of a win for us," head coach Mark Few said after his team won 72-65 in the Queen City on New Year's Eve. "That team had not lost when they were complete. It was a great win for our program against a very good team on the road. It was tough. It wasn't easy."

Consider the accomplishment: The Zags got this victory thousands of miles from their home of Spokane, Wash., overcoming the distance as well as a sellout Cintas Center crowd and a Musketeers team hungry -- even desperate -- for a win. Xavier looked likely to make a run numerous times throughout the second half, but each time, the Zags knocked down a timely shot, several with just seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Often, the player making it was Zags forward Sam Dower. Dower is far from the first name most fans will associate with the Bulldogs' attack; he's Gonzaga's fourth or even fifth option behind well-known forwards Elias Harris and Robert Sacre and freshman guard Kevin Pangos, among others. But Dower was the key to Gonzaga's effort Saturday night, grabbing 10 rebounds and scoring 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting en route to the win.

How good was Dower's night? He even hit two 3-pointers, matching his total from the entire 2011-12 season to date.

"It was just falling for me tonight," Dower said. "Even in warm-ups, my shot was really going down. And then once we got in the game, they weren't really playing me off screen and rolls, weren't really guarding me off that pick and pop, and I just took what was there."

Dower's effort came off the bench, and it may have been a surprise to the crowd that was so frequently silenced by Dower's succession of big buckets, particularly a four-minute stretch early in the second half in which he scored 12 of his team's 14 points, opening up a 54-47 Gonzaga lead. But it didn't surprise Gonzaga or, for that matter, Xavier.

"In practice he's basically Z-Bo, he's Zack Randolph," Sacre said with a laugh as Dower smirked a few lockers down. "We see him do that all day, every day. We know he can do those things."

"Do not call him Sam," Harris added, joining in the good-natured ribbing. "Please refer to him by his new name, The Chosen One."

"We knew he could play coming in," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "He had a whale of a game against us last year, albeit in fewer minutes. But we thought we did a good job on Harris, we did a good job on Sacre. What Dower did to us? Man. That kid's a pro."

Dower's buckets were impressive as much for their timeliness as their skill. Xavier never yielded the game in the second half, and at various points it looked like it was about to make the trademark Holloway-led run that helped spur the Musketeers to their impressive, and pre-brawl, 8-0 start. But Dower, along with Sacre and Pangos, made key bucket after key bucket down the stretch to ward off what felt like an inevitable Xavier run.

"They kept getting back in the game," Few said. "Our guys came over during three straight timeouts with their daubers down. I had to tell them, 'Look, we're ahead.'"

Of course, the margin was aided by X's struggles from the field. The Musketeers shot 3-of-18 from beyond the arc, good for a whopping 16.7 percent, as Gonzaga sank in its defense in an attempt to prevent Holloway from wreaking havoc on dribble penetration. That kind of shooting makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get a win no matter the setting or circumstances. Considering Xavier combined that rough shooting night with a poor rebounding effort (the Zags grabbed 38 percent of their available misses on the offensive end, greatly exceeding Xavier's 23 percent), the Musketeers could never mount the run they desperately needed.

Naturally, this led to questions about the state of X's team and the ways it has struggled since Dec. 10's melee with Cincinnati. The losses of Holloway and Lyons were crucial in a home loss to Oral Roberts (at home) and then without Lyons against Long Beach State (at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii). But even when Lyons returned to face Hawaii, the Musketeers still suffered a shocking overtime loss.

The hope that Xavier could regroup was clearly not lost on center Kenny Frease, who sat alongside a near-silent Holloway in the postgame media session and wondered aloud what was wrong with his team -- his performance included.

"We've got to figure out whatever it was we had before all this stuff went down," Frease said. "Whatever we lost, we've got to figure it out. We've got to get it back."

Mack, for his part, was less concerned with the long run. For now, he was more interested in seeing his players improve on both ends of the floor, particularly on defense and the boards, than with the nebulous questions Frease posed just a few minutes earlier.

"Here's the thing, like, I'm not going to lose my mind," Mack said. "The season is a lifetime. I've been through adversity, both personally and professionally. We're good. We didn't play real well out in Hawaii, and it's our job to correct that.

"But we just lost to a team that a lot of teams around the country won't schedule," Mack said.

Amid all the overheated concerns about Xavier's play, its bad losses, the way the fallout from the brawl is -- or isn't -- affecting its play, that was the lesson served Saturday night.

This Gonzaga team is now 11-2, with its only two losses coming at Illinois and at home versus Michigan State. It has a solid freshman guard in Pangos, one of the bigger and more dynamic frontcourts in the country in Sacre and Harris, and a potentially devastating bench option in Dower. It has one of the most consistent coaches in the country in Few and a unique and admirable willingness to take its show on the road anywhere against any opponent.

Gonzaga earned this challenging win as much as Xavier earned its loss, if not more so. Lest we forget, this Zags team is pretty good, too.

"This is one of the toughest places to play in the country," Dower said. "But we came and proved we're one of the top contenders in the country, too."