ANAHEIM, Calif. — Drift back to Gonzaga's 103-90 loss against North Carolina on Dec. 15 — a contest that was never out of reach but never truly there for the taking. The defining memory of that game could be one of the Tar Heels' freshman phenom, Coby White, pressing down on the accelerator no matter the circumstance.
Missed shots. Made shots. Turnovers. The Afro-adorning point guard bolted through GU's perimeter defense for 15 points and six assists, his tempo sparking chaos that extended beyond the box score.
On that night, White and the Tar Heels rollicked the Zags for 103 points, 54.2 percent shooting and a 52 percent clip beyond the arc. GU found itself outside the top 50 of KenPom's defensive ranking, a place it hadn't been since 2010 and well off its No. 1 rooftop from 2017, a team that achieved goals this year's rendition hopes to emulate — and then some.
"[Defense] is something [the coaches] have been harping on," Jeremy Jones said. "Early on this season, defensive rebounding was something we were struggling with and that's what lost us a couple games. It's something they've been on us about."
There is validity to Jones' comments, proofed in the final score sheets of GU's December losses to Tennessee and UNC, where it ceded the defensive rebounding battle 29-22 and 27-16.
After Thursday's 72-58 victory over Florida State — GU snatched 32 defensive rebounds to FSU's 29 — the Bulldogs have climbed to 13th in KenPom's defensive efficiency. Not elite, though still good, and nestled into a spot that likely won't produce sleepless, pillow-flipping nights for head coach Mark Few.
"We've been looking at our defensive numbers and how they rank nationally compared to other people," Jones said. "It's been getting better and better every week since maybe two months ago or so. Just to see that is definitely encouraging."
If the Bulldogs have turned in a better defensive showing than Thursday's version this season, it's hard to find, perhaps tucked away in a rout over one of the West Coast Conference's basement dwellers. GU limited the Seminoles to 39.3 percent shooting and 15 percent from 3 while tallying six blocks and six steals.
"It was a point [of emphasis] to be physical from the jump, try to be aggressive on them like they try to do on other teams" Killian Tillie said. "We tried to do the same thing to them and we did a great job right away. We also we're boxing them out, not giving them second chances."
As GU reaches the halfway point of its intended target — hoisting up the national championship trophy in Minneapolis — a once-maligned defense looks to be sharpening itself.
"Just really guarding your guy and then, obviously, knowing the scouting report is huge, not making any mental mistakes," Jones said of GU's keys to defense. "We have defensive accountability after every game. Each individual player, obviously, the lower the better, as far as points that you've given up. Just no scouting errors is huge, especially this time of year, you gotta take people's strengths away."
To solely credit the Zags' defense in Thursday's win is to overlook their battle-tested gene, which belies their midmajor moniker and grocery list of blowout victories in WCC action. Games against Duke, UNC and Tennessee readied the Bulldogs for these March moments.
On numerous occasions in the second half, FSU's momentum-shifting plays performed geographical magic, turning Anaheim's Honda Center into Tallahassee, Florida's, Donald L. Tucker Civic Center. But GU never folded, refusing to ever let the Seminoles make it a one-possession game past the 13:07 mark of the first half. When Trent Forrest's free throw capped off a 13-5 run and cut the lead to 60-56 with 4:11 to play, Zach Norvell Jr. splashed home a triple on the next possession and the Zags closed the game on a 12-2 run.
"[We have] confidence and belief in situations like that. You practice hard every day, you go hard in those situations every day and when you get in them, you don't want the situations to be too big," Norvell said. "Stay level-headed and coaches put us in that during practice, three-minute games, four-minute games, when games like that are important and you don't want to get too wavered in that situation."
GU is now primed for its second Elite Eight appearance in three years. While only Tillie and Josh Perkins played rotation minutes on that 2017 team, the Zags have established a fraternity of success, trickling down to those unacquainted with a spotlight this glaring.
Whether it be a newfound defensive instinct, that intangible understanding of winning time or the nation's most potent offense, these Bulldogs are weaponizing their skills, sitting on the precipice of another Final Four.
"It's the culture of winning. The older guys teach the younger guys," Few said. "This is what you do at Gonzaga. You win."