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Originally published Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 8:16 PM

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Fresh infusion of talent sparked Zags later in season

A trio of players provided a boost late in the season for the perennially NCAA tournament-bound Zags.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Thursday

Gonzaga vs. St. John's @ Denver, 6:45 p.m., Ch. 7

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DENVER — During the leaner times in Gonzaga's bumpy basketball season, Marquise Carter would call home, or talk to his older brother. He was frustrated, having just jumped from junior college to a program where the intricacies of the Zags' myriad offensive sets had him in a fog.

"Keep working, and stay coachable," said his brother Nate, who played at Oklahoma.

Gradually, the game came to Carter, just as it did to Sam Dower and David Stockton. Thanks to the evolution of a basketball team, that team finds itself in an NCAA-tournament game here Thursday night against St. John's.

It's a matchup of some odd dynamics in experience. The Zags are the tournament-tested veterans, while the Red Storm hasn't been to the NCAA in nine years.

On the other hand, St. John's is one of the most senior-dominated teams in the tournament, while players like Carter, Dower and Stockton are in their first year of contributing to a high-profile program.

How Stockton stands up to a quicker, more physical brand of guard than those in the West Coast Conference; how the others react to the big stage will say a lot about the outcome.

"They play in the Big East," said Gonzaga guard Demetri Goodson. "Their conference is very tough and aggressive, with a lot of athletes. They're going to come out and press. They probably think they're just playing some WCC team.

"The last couple of days in practice, the coaches have been harping: Be strong with the ball. If we can control our turnovers, I think we have a pretty good chance to win."

There are two remarkable facets to the Zags' midseason makeover: One, that it happened at all, and two, that it apparently hasn't created any schism in team cohesiveness.

"If you can have one guy help you after Christmas (who hadn't before), that's good," said assistant coach Ray Giacoletti. "We had three. That's extremely rare."

Carter, a product of San Diego who attended Three Rivers (Mo.) JC, had to learn the system. Early, he and Dower, a Minneapolis product who redshirted last year, couldn't adjust to the speed of the game.

Stockton, another 2010 redshirt, was getting roughed up physically or being abused by skilled offensive players.

Gradually, they began to get it. Carter, for instance, played only 37 minutes in the first six games of January, yet would become the WCC tournament's most valuable player.

"It got really easy for me," said Carter. "My confidence rose, and I ran away with it."

All three were huge factors down the stretch for the Zags. Carter nailed a three-point shot in the last 90 seconds to send a big game at Saint Mary's into an overtime that Gonzaga won, and downed several free throws in the final seconds of a hard WCC semifinal against San Francisco.

Dower, a lefty with a deft touch, had double-figure games three times against Saint Mary's, and Stockton's basketball smarts — he's the son of Zags great John Stockton — allowed the offense to perk in a way that Goodson couldn't supply.

It meant that playing time dwindled for some players, including Goodson and European freshmen Mathis Monninghoff and Mathis Keita. But perhaps necessity is also the mother of chemistry; the Zags apparently have stayed harmonious through the transition.

"We're winning games," said Goodson, whose minutes have been sub-20 in eight of the past 12 games. "If we were losing, it'd definitely be different. All these guys have bought into (the idea that) some days they might play 20 minutes, some days they might not play."

"It's been great; we haven't had one situation all year," says coach Mark Few. "They're very supportive of each other. With all the ups and downs, getting beat up a little early, they've been unbelievably cohesive, pulling for each other. No issues whatsoever, in any way, shape or form."

Notes

• A limited number of seats for both of Thursday's sessions went on sale Wednesday, a result of some teams turning back allotments.

• St. John's coach Steve Lavin called the Zags "the most gifted offensive team we've played all year." But his star guard, Dwight Hardy, was less effusive, calling Gonzaga "a pretty good team."

• Dower will wear protective goggles after getting poked in the eye in the WCC final March 7.

• Gonzaga practiced Wednesday at Regis College in Denver before its obligatory 40-minute workout at the Pepsi Center.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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