Both of last week’s games had a very similar feel at halftime. Not much was working for Gonzaga and down by just under 10 points in each contest, the Zags needed some help to get back in the game when play resumed. Against San Francisco, that deficit wasn’t the result of poor defense, as the Bulldogs held the Dons to 31 points in the first half. The problem was that the nation’s #1 offense floundered badly in Spokane and found itself disrupted or stagnant at every turn. In the face of the Dons’ defensive pressure, the Zags could muster only a season-low 22 points in the first half. Though the offense was sputtering and struggling in a similar way against BYU, the Zags were able to come up with 38 points by half. The defense, though, couldn’t contain the Cougars inside or from beyond the arc where BYU was just starting to heat up. In Provo, the teams went into their locker rooms with a score of 38-46 at halftime on Saturday.
Over the years of watching Gonzaga play I’ve learned not to despair when the Bulldogs are down by single digits at half. Being down is always a reason for concern, of course, but being down by single digits with a half left to play is never a place to panic when you have a great coaching staff. Time and time again I’ve seen the team make the necessary adjustments to right the ship and turn the tables around in the 2nd. That was the case against San Francisco on Thursday as Gonzaga used a 24-2 run when play resumed to completely flip the script and turn a 22-31, 9-point deficit into a 46-33 double-digit lead after the first 10 minutes of play.
Though Joel Ayayi continued to struggle having effectiveness on the court, mustering just 4 points and 4 rebounds against the Dons, the other 4 starters for Gonzaga turned the lean pickings of the first half into a 49-point feast in the 2nd. Getting the start after sitting out the last few games with ankle trouble, Killian Tillie went on a rampage with a 10 for 13 effort shooting from the field, including 1 for 2 from deep, adding 9 rebounds to his 22 points. The Zags leading scorer, Filip Petrusev, tracked down 7 rebounds and scored 16 agaisnt SF.
In the Zag’s backcourt, Ryan Woolridge continued his humble effectiveness against San Francisco, picking up a bit of everything in his stat line on Thursday by shooting 4 for 7 from the field and 1 of 3 from deep, adding 5 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals (!) to his 12 points. He’s one of Gonzaga’s premier defenders and showed some of his best D against the Dons. The 71-54 win was a Jekkyl and Hyde game offensively (or, rather, Hyde and Jekkyl), but Gonzaga’s defense was consistently able to hold a decent offensive team to just 54 on the night, including just 23 in the 2nd half.
Corey Kispert found his touch from beyond the arc Thursday night, going 3 for 5 from deep to round out his 11 points and 5 rebounds. While Kispert did find the hoop on occasion against BYU on Saturday, gathering 16 points on the night, it was rarely from so far away. A 43.3% shooter from 3-point range on average this season, he shot just 1-10 from beyond the arc in Provo. As a team, the Zags were a dismal 20% from deep on the night in a 5 for 25 effort—one of the the main reasons Gonzaga couldn’t get the win on the road and fell to BYU by a score of 78-91.
Though Tillie and Petrusev reached double Digits in points against the Cougars, getting 18 and 14 respectively, neither found many rebounds as they combined for just 5. Nor could the big men find ways to stop BYU’s Yoeli Childs who dominated in the paint, coming away with 28 points and 10 rebounds. Besides the difficulty handling Childs down low, Gonzaga’s defense as a whole couldn’t get enough hand in the faces of the Cougars’ shooters who ended up averaging over 41% on the night from deep—highlighted by Jake Toolson’s 5 for 8 effort. The Zags poor performance on both ends was further complicated by 14 turnovers, compared to just 10 for BYU.
Gonzaga did show some fight in the middle of the second half as they whittled the BYU lead down to 2, at 68-70 after Drew Timme made a lay-up with 7:56 left in the game—and it seemed like the Bulldogs might overtake the Cougars down the stretch. But the overtaking part didn’t materialize as the shots just wouldn’t fall. In a game that Mark Few summed up by saying: “We were out-toughed in all phases of the game,” one thing that looked good for the Bulldogs was their performance from the free throw line. The Zags shot 23-28 from the charity stripe in Provo while facing a very loud, and very boisterous crowd for a rare +80% performance. Both Tillie and Petrusev shot a lot of those free throws and both missed only one each. In contrast, despite the considerable win at SF, the Zags shot 8-15 for 53.3% from the line in Spokane, Thursday night.
Having split the two games with BYU during WCC play so far may not have a huge effect on Gonzaga’s placement in any of the upcoming tournaments, provided they come up with wins this coming week and in the WCC tournament. In most polls, the Bulldogs slipped just one slot as a result of the loss, falling from #2 to #3. Saturday was a serious bummer, no doubt about it, with a lot of winning streaks broken and feelings hurt and such. And of all the opponents in the WCC, I hate to see Gonzaga lose to BYU the most. There may, however, be a silver lining around the dark cloud hovering over Zag Nation. The Bulldogs are very likely going to get a chance at redemption in just a few short weeks.
While it’s not a lock since both Gonzaga and BYU are going to have to win at least one game in the WCC tournament in order to see each other in the final, as the likely #1 and #2 seeds, provided they actually earn that seeding with their upcoming play this week, they would both receive a double-bye on the way toward the possibility of a rematch. That could all shake out differently if WCC play goes awry from what I think will happen this week, but it is a distinct possibility. I, for one, am hoping beyond hope—and I believe all the Gonzaga players and fans are as well—that the title game for the WCC tournament in Las Vegas will be a face-off between BYU and Gonzaga. The tournament runs from March 5-10 and my guess is that every game is going to be a good one because when you’re playing for a punched ticket to the NCAA tournament even the hard luck teams can step up mightily.
I’m not sure if this qualifies as a silver lining, but I’m gonna put it out there anyway. Taking too-long of a winning streak into the NCAA tournament could have been a bad thing for Gonzaga. I know it’s a stretch of logic, but perhaps losing right now isn’t such a bad thing. A bit of humility coming from a loss, I think, could go a long way for a team that has had some easy sailing in realizing what sort of effort and intensity is necessary to win over and over again against the best of the best in March Madness. Gonzaga certainly got some humble pie on Saturday. And hopefully you can assume with me that being knocked down a bit could provide the impetus to start a fire at just the right time that might not have been there if they’d gone on winning. The fervent goal of upending BYU in the WCC tournament final, if that game happens, is going to be a challenge similar to the challenges the Zags will soon face in each set of games in the Big Dance. I hope it happens. I really, really hope it happens.
First, however, Gonzaga has to take out some frustration in games against San Diego this Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday—both to be played at home in The Kennel. And though the Zags already beat both of these teams by 30 or more in the contests played on each of their home courts in California, nothing is going to be given easily—especially this time of year. Though my predictions haven’t been stellar lately, I’ll give you a couple anyway: Gonzaga wins both. Against San Diego: 93-67. Against Saint Mary’s: 91-77. Have a great weekend and GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses