KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Gonzaga players were lying around the court, just stretching like usual. But there was a little more chatter between teammates, a few more slaps on the back, and all of this might not seem like much, but Josh Heytvelt took note and walked over to his coach.
"I just told him I think we've got it back," Heytvelt said.
|Mark Few's Bulldogs may have their bite back. (US Presswire)|
"He said, 'You think so?' "Heytvelt answered. "He said, 'Do you really?' And I told him I really did."
Turns out, he was really right.
So welcome back, Gonzaga!
Honestly, I've missed you and your swagger, though not nearly as much as you've missed your swagger. But -- just as Heytvelt predicted -- that swagger (otherwise known as "it") is now back courtesy of Wednesday night's 89-79 overtime victory at 15th-ranked Tennessee, and for those of you who don't believe me you should've been in the Zags' locker room here at Thompson-Boling Arena, where grown men showered, stood in towels and then broke into an impromptu rendition of James Brown's classic I Feel Good.
(Just like Heytvelt knew that they would)
"It might be the first time I've heard that," Heytvelt said. "I don't remember the last game we won that we were pumped about."
Or even the last game they won.
The Zags entered Wednesday's rematch with the Vols the losers of three consecutive games (and four of their past five), which resulted in them falling from No. 4 in the nation to completely out of the latest Associated Press poll. In response, Few labeled his team "wounded" and acknowledged they had lost the confidence generated from the Old Spice Classic victories, and in a Monday night phone conversation he said he was "kicking himself a little bit" for scheduling such a brutal slate of games because losing four times in 12 outings has a way of messing with a team both physically and mentally.
Either way, Few said, what's done is done.
So the Zags boarded a plane headed to Knoxville, and the problem they faced was that even a good effort might result in a loss. You see, the Vols don't lose in this building, or at least not often. They had won 37 consecutive home games since loss to Kentucky on March 1, 2006, and there was no real reason to suspect they wouldn't run that streak to 38 considering there were 22,236 Rocky Top-singing fans in the stands and that Gonzaga had already taken losses at Arizona and Utah.
"Tennessee is a helluva team," Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo said. "They do everything the way they are taught to do it and execute things the way they should execute things. So to get a win like this is a big thing for us, and it gives us a lot of confidence because great teams come in here and lose."
At this, freshman Demetri Goodson chimed in. "Great teams come in here and win, too," he said, and then the guys broke into another rendition of I Feel Good, and that flight back across the country must've been pretty fun.
No, 9-4 is not where the Zags expected to be heading into Saturday's West Coast Conference opener against Portland; if they could take a mulligan and redo the month of December, I'm sure they would. But 9-4 is better than 8-5. And that's the important thing to remember, because teams that enter Thompson-Boling Arena on three-game losing streaks typically leave Thompson-Boling Arena with four-game losing streaks. So that the Zags were able to avoid such a fate could well be the turning point in a season that very much needed one, and now they'll be expected to string victories in the WCC while positioning themselves for the type of NCAA tournament run the program desperately needs.
"(My players) realize, if we (scheduled differently), we could've been 13-1," Few said. "But they didn't want that. They never backed away from this. They're glad we came out here and did this, and went to Indiana and went to Orlando and went to Arizona and went to (Utah). They're all right with it."
Actually, they're better than all right.
As it stands, they feel pretty damn good.