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Kelly Olynyk emerges as star for No. 8 Gonzaga

Kelly Olynyk emerges as star for No. 8 Gonzaga

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk figured he wouldn't get much playing time behind Robert Sacre and Elias Harris last season, so he redshirted.

Good move.

The junior has emerged as the leading scorer for No. 8 Gonzaga (16-1, 3-0 West Coast Conference) this season.

``He grew up and his game grew up,'' coach Mark Few said of Olynyk's redshirt season. ``In the past he was a little out of control and made a lot of turnovers. Now, he is in control and his game is more mature.''

Olynyk, a 7-footer, is averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds per game, and he's shooting 66 percent from the field. He dropped a career-high 33 points on Santa Clara on Jan. 5 and followed that up with 31 against archrival Saint Mary's last Thursday.

He was named the West Coast Conference player of the month for December.

Olynyk is a big reason Gonzaga is off to the best start in its history as a Division I program, as the Zags prepare this week to play at Portland on Thursday and at No. 13 Butler on Saturday.

All the attention is a big change for a player who before the season might have been considered an afterthought on Gonzaga's deep front line.

``He's improved more than anybody in college basketball,'' Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said after Olynyk made 11 of 19 shots against his team. ``We were prepared for him and he still did it to us.''

Olynyk is from Kamloops, British Columbia, and was heavily recruited out of high school by the likes of Syracuse, Providence and North Carolina State. He chose Gonzaga in part so he could play closer to home. Playing time was hard to come by his first two seasons, and Olynyk averaged only 5 points and 4 rebounds as a little-used sophomore.

Then he went to coaches with the idea of redshirting because he didn't figure to displace Sacre, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Harris, one of the team's best players. A season of sitting on the bench opened Olynyk's eyes to the intricacies of the game, Few said.

``He got to see things from a coaching point of view that could be beneficial to all players,'' Few said.

Olynyk credited lots of playing time in practice with the scout team for his improvement.

``You can take some bad shots and make mistakes because it really doesn't matter,'' Olynyk said. ``You're meant to make mistakes.''

This season, Olynyk figured to split time with Harris, Sam Dower, and Przemek Karnowski on the front line. But as the season has worn on, it is Olynyk and Harris who have taken the lion's share of the minutes.

``The one downside to great depth is that,'' Few said.

Asked if he had ever seen a player improve so much during a redshirt year, Few offered a different opinion.

`That's implying he wasn't very good when he got here,'' Few said. ``He's adjusted his game is what he's done. He quit settling for 3's and became a very good player.''

``He is one guy that is not afraid to make a play,'' Few said. ``He is multi-talented in regards that he can drive it comfortably. He can pass it, and you guys know that he can shoot it.''

The formerly clean-cut Olynyk also grew out his hair, so that he now needs headbands to keep it out of his face. That prompts plenty of opposing fans to chant ``get a haircut.''

``If that's what they want to focus on, it's OK with me,'' Olynyk said.

He's been playing well all season, but the past couple of weeks have been a real coming-out party. Olynyk scored 21 points each in wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State, 16 points in the conference opener versus Pepperdine and then the 33 against Santa Clara and 31 against Saint Mary's. The last Gonzaga player to have consecutive 30-point games was Adam Morrison in 2006.

``I'm happy with the way I'm playing now,'' Olynyk said. ``My teammates are getting me the ball in great position.''

Guard Kevin Pangos said Olynyk has emerged as the vocal leader of the Zags.

``He's being a true veteran,'' Pangos said.

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Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

When you think about Evgeny Kuznetsov in the playoffs, most probably think of his overtime-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018 that ended the series and handed Washington a long-awaited victory over its archrival. But that wasn’t the first series-clinching goal Kuznetsov scored.

Before the Stanley Cup was brought to Washington, before the bird celebration, there was another epic moment of Kuznetsov’s career that now feels overshadowed by the 2018 run.

In 2015, the Caps returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. They entered the postseason as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division, drawing the third-place New York Islanders in the first round.

A back-and-forth series, it ultimately went the distance with Game 7 being played in Washington. As even as the series had been, the Caps dominated that Game 7, suffocating the Islanders and giving up only 11 shots on goal. Joel Ward put Washington ahead 1-0, but Frans Nielsen tied it early in the third period. Despite the dominant defensive performance, Jaroslav Halak (remember him?) would not allow the Caps to the chance to put the game away.

Just when it began to feel as if Halak was going to steal away another Game 7 from the Caps, a young Russian center in just his first full NHL season took over.

With less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, Kuznetsov took a pass along the half wall, showed Frans Nielsen his back and when Nielsen bit, he spun and cut to the center of the ice. Nielsen was caught a step behind and whacked Kuznetsov in desperation, actually diving to the ice to try to keep him from breaking loose. In one slick move Kuznetsov had cut through the Islanders’ defense and was in alone on net. Halak went down to the butterfly as Kuznetsov cut to center, but Kuznetsov showed incredible patience and did not immediately shoot. Suddenly, Halak was committed and helpless. He dove to his right desperately holding up the glove as Kuznetsov kept gliding across the ice, but Halak had left too much of the net open by going down too soon and Kuznetsov hit the corner.

With 7:18 remaining in the game and the series, Kuznetsov had given the Caps the 2-1 lead.

The series was a breakout performance for Kuznetsov who returned the following season and earned a top-six role, something not all that easy for young players to do under head coach Barry Trotz. It also gave a franchise still bearing the scars of Halak’s 2010 upset a measure of revenge.

And the rest is history.

What heroics does Kuznetsov have in store for the Islanders on Saturday when the two teams meet at 1 p.m.? Tune in to NBC Sports Washington at 12 p.m. for coverage.

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Wizards committed more turnovers against the Raptors than they have in any game in 25 years

Wizards committed more turnovers against the Raptors than they have in any game in 25 years

Whether it's good or bad, nothing the Wizards do is subtle. 

They'll score a million points and give up two million points. They'll beat the Heat, Nuggets and Celtics without Bradley Beal but also blow an 18-point fourth quarter lead to the Bulls. 

The Wizards had some turnover issues Friday night, but again, they're never subtle. 

Washington committed 28 turnovers on the way to a 29-point loss. Following the first seven minutes of play, the Wizards had seven turnovers and seven points. 

The last time the Wizards turned the ball over that much was April 2, 1994, in a 104-96 win over the Bucks. The last time an NBA team turned it over 28 times? The 2010 Suns. 

Nine Wizards players had multiple turnovers, while five players had at least three. 

Following Bradley Beal's comments criticizing the team's culture and need to develop winning habits, the Wizards' response left more than enough to be desired. Credit the Raptors defense utilizing their length and ball pressure to take advantage of when the Wizards were loose with the ball, but it takes more than good defense to turn it over 28 times. 

The bright side is this was an uncharacteristic performance for the Wizards. They currently average the 10th-fewest turnovers per game in the NBA, so there's a good chance they clean things up on Monday against the Pistons. 

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