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Gonzaga finds toughness can complement finesse

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Gonzaga has been punched plenty of times during its rise to national prominence this decade.

But the Zags tend to use finesse to fight back.

Their perimeter shooting served as a response to Tennessee in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic on Sunday night at Disney's Milk House. But they needed a newfound quality to put the Vols away: toughness.

Gonzaga was the tougher team for 40 minutes. The Zags beat Tennessee 83-74 for the tournament title and officially announced themselves ready for prime time and the marathon march to March.

"Before, we used to hide in our shells and not punch back,'' Gonzaga fifth-year senior Josh Heytvelt said. "This game showed we've matured a lot and we're a high-level contender for the rest of the season.''

This game was just round one. Gonzaga must return the game to Knoxville in a pre-existing series with the Vols. (Tennessee beat Gonzaga in Seattle last year.) The return game will be Jan. 7 in what likely will be the most hostile environment the Zags play in this season. (Yes, even more than going to the bandbox McKeon Pavilion at Saint Mary's.)

"It's going to be crazy down there with nothing but orange everywhere,'' Gonzaga senior Micah Downs said. "They'll be looking to punch us in the face, knock us on the ground and beat us to a pulp. We've got to be ready for them.''

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said in jest that he told Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl that the two should just cancel the game with the Zags because they've played a game on the West Coast and on the East Coast in the series. But that won't happen.

"Yeah, we got them again,'' Pearl said. "I thought Gonzaga put on a clinic and controlled the game, withstood our pressure, played with great intensity, and playing Maryland the night before helped them.''

The Zags have had plenty of moments throughout the years in hyped nonconference matchups, such as beating North Carolina in the NIT Season Tip-Off, taking out Connecticut in Boston, Texas in Phoenix, Georgia Tech in Las Vegas and Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City.

But offense alone wasn't going to beat the Vols. Gonzaga had to prove it was the tougher team.

"They came with it, gave us everything they had and really came out with that fire,'' Tennessee junior Tyler Smith said. "They punched us first, we battled back and they came back with another punch.''

Before, we used to hide in our shells and not punch back. This game showed we've matured a lot and we're a high-level contender for the rest of the season.

--Gonzaga's Josh Heytvelt

Gonzaga led 35-31 when the first half ended, and freshman Demetri Goodson jawed a bit with a few Vols. The coaches had to separate the teams to make sure there was nothing more than just some words flying. But toughness isn't about sticking out your chest in a potential scrape. It comes down to getting to the loose balls, responding to a run and not backing down.

Tennessee dominated the backboard, beating the Zags 50-26. But this was a game for which the stats don't even begin to tell the story. The Zags didn't let the Vols finish with any kind of consistency.

The Zags made their shots in bunches, including 11 3s -- four by Steven Gray. But they got to the line in bunches (making 18 of 25 free throws) and finished plenty of plays with authoritative dunks by Ira Brown, Downs and Jeremy Pargo.

And that's the difference with this squad. The makeup is such that Brown can provide the beef and physical play off the bench, Robert Sacre adds some power, Goodson is a jet that isn't afraid to get into someone's grill and Heytvelt and Pargo have matured into players who have helped the Zags immensely.

"In the past, everyone would continue to say, 'This is a finesse team,' but this year's team is more athletic and isn't backing down from anyone,'' Brown said. "We have something to prove to everyone that we can compete with the best.''

The Zags built an 18-point lead in the second half. Tennessee cut it to six. But Gonzaga stretched it back to 10 within a matter of seconds.

"The big question this week in three games was, how tough would we be?'' Gray said. The Zags lost two key interior glue guys off last season's team in Abdullahi Kuso and David Pendergraft. "This week solidified us and showed that we've changed. We've matured and we can take care of the ball. We're not a soft team.''

Gray went on to say that this was the Zags' first test. Gonzaga gets high marks for -- as odd as it sounds -- its first nonconference win over a ranked team since Jan. 31, 2007, when it beat Stanford.

Gonzaga will have plenty more opportunities. The Zags will try to win at Washington State (Dec. 10), versus Connecticut in Seattle (Dec. 20) and, of course, at Tennessee on Jan. 7 before Memphis comes calling to break up the middle of the West Coast Conference slate on Feb. 7.

A tournament with such a loaded field as this one can change the complexion of a team's season. Just ask the rest of the Old Spice Classic field.

Tennessee understands it is nearly an elite team but still must mature and close out a game.

Georgetown showed how much it matured in three days and could be a real threat in the Big East.

Maryland went through the high of beating Michigan State, then the low by getting pummeled by the Hoyas.

Michigan State is still searching for its identity when Goran Suton or Raymar Morgan is out or ineffective.

Siena thought it was all that, but left without a win.

Wichita State discovered that passionate play can result in wins, and the expectations suddenly rose after the Shockers nearly clipped Georgetown and left with their one win.

Oklahoma State can play at one speed -- fast. But the Cowboys have to discover how to play when the pace is a bit slower.

Then there is Gonzaga, which figured out that it is a legit threat to earn a top-four seed come March if it keeps up this type of play the next three months.

"Every year, we come in thinking that we can go deep in the tournament,'' Gonzaga junior Matt Bouldin said. "This year, the expectation is more of a reality. We see ourselves there. We just have to work to get there. We felt going into the season we were one of the best teams in the country, and now we have to keep proving it.''

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.