And the good stuff kept coming after the pregame festivities and celebrations. After having a very difficult night against BYU the week before last, we saw Gonzaga in good form on both ends of the court, especially on offense. We saw Corey Kispert (who went 1 for 10 from deep in Provo) hit a shot from NBA-range right in front of the Gonzaga bench and close enough to Mark Few that his coach could have whispered to him in the deafening building. On the defensive end, Kispert completed what my high-school coach used to call “the greatest play you can make in basketball” by taking a charge against San Diego and two more against Saint Mary’s. Killian Tillie, the focus of the senior honoring ceremonies on Saturday, continued to be uber-efficient on the offensive end and a force to be reckoned with on defense while Joel Ayayi showed ever stronger signs that he may be back on track to being the all-stat-gathering weapon he’d been before going on a bit of a slump earlier in February. All of this is boding extremely well for a team that is gearing up to take on all comers in March—first and foremost 2 opponents in the WCC tournament—San Francisco on Monday and then all hopes set on a rematch with BYU in the WCC tournament title game on Tuesday should both teams win their semi-final matchups.
Against San Diego on Thursday night, 6 of the 7 players I call “the Fab 7” (the seven who garner almost all the minutes of play in Gonzaga’s slim rotation) shot 50% or higher from the field. Filip Petrusev, who led scoring in both games went 9 for 17 on Thursday to earn his 21 points. He also gathered a game-high 9 rebounds for the Bulldogs, 5 of those offensive boards. Petrusev shared high-rebounding honors for the Zags with Drew Timme on Thursday who had 9 as well and added two blocks to his 7 points. The rebounding numbers were very well in the Zags favor on Thursday. Every Bulldog starter as well as Timme had at least 6 rebounds—and Gonzaga almost doubled the Torreros total rebounding numbers with 51 to SD’s 27 (18 offensive rebounds for GU, 6 for SD). Tillie (12 points), Kispert (16 points) and Ayayi (9 points) all had 6 rebounds and shot well from deep—Tillie going 2 of 3 from beyond the arc, Kispert 2 of 5 and Ayayi 1 of 1.
Perhaps it was Ryan Woolridge who had the most impressive game from his point guard position Thursday night for Gonzaga. He shot 4 of 5 from the field, including 1 of 2 from deep, 6 of 7 from the free-throw line, adding 7 rebounds, 6 assists and a steal to his 15 points. Admon Gilder was the lone member of the Fab 7 who shot just under 50%, going 5 for 11 from the field to garner 12 points. He hit another of his first-half-closing 3-point baskets to bring the crowd to their feet if they weren’t there already. As time was ticking down, Drew Timme had the ball near the middle of the court and when he dribbled toward the basket and the top of the key, Gilder trailed about 8 feet behind. After Timme dragged defenders from the top of the key toward the paint, he shoveled the ball back to Gilder who nailed the straight-on 3-point shot to put the Zags up 46-34 going into the locker-room at half. They outdid that first half in the second by putting up 48 more and holding the Torreros to just 25—finishing with a score of 94-59.
Though the Zags didn’t pull off the dominant performance they had the last time they played Saint Mary’s in Moraga, where the Zags won 90-60 in a just plain bonkers night in terms of offensive efficiency and defensive effectiveness for the Bulldogs—they did have some outstanding numbers in Spokane last Saturday as well. The Bulldogs shot a sizzling 59.3% from the field and 53.8% from beyond the arc—as well as 15 for 18 from the free throw line for another of their more common 80% + nights at the charity stripe. Filip Petrusev has gotten some flak at times this season for not being physical enough under the basket. If he truly hasn’t been physical enough this season—a criticism I find it very difficult to agree with—then last week was definitely an exception to the norm. Petrusev was 8 for 12 from the field against the Gaels, 11 for 13 at the free throw line, adding 6 rebounds (3 offensive) and 3 assists to his team-leading 27 points.
In response to the criticism lodged against Petrusev’s play , I would say that the young, native Serbian continues to play with more strength and confidence with each week—a fact that bodes very well as March Madness comes soon and a potential rematch with Yoeli Childs and BYU in the WCC Championship is just a day away. Last week he flexed his muscle down low on a regular basis, converting numerous and-1 opportunities as multiple defenders tried in vain to stop him. When Admon Gilder missed a floater through the lane against the Gaels, Petrusev was able to gather the rebound in the middle of three defenders, gather and score despite one of the defenders holding his arm. The Zags leading scorer and WCC Player of the Year (as well as one of the 5 finalists for the Wooden Award), Petrusev also showed smarts on the block when he drew multiple defenders and kicking the ball out on more than one occasion to teammates like the hot-handed Corey Kispert for a 3.
If Corey Kispert (recently named to the list of 5 Julius Erving Award finalists) made a strong showing of the fact that he was no longer in a slump in the game against San Diego, he went even further to show absolute excellence against Saint Mary’s. Going 4 for 5 from deep, and using a variety of spots on the floor to score from, Kispert joined Petrusev in the 20 points or over club with 20 himself, adding 5 rebounds and a block as well. He and Killian Tillie’s defense against the very dangerous Malik Fitts was a decisive factor in the 86-76 victory over the Gaels.
It was only after solving a few issues at halftime that Gonzaga was able to pull away from Saint Mary’s—the teams walking into the locker room at halftime in a 34-34 tie. One of the problems was that Jordan Ford, the uber-talented veteran point guard for the Gaels, was being given a bit too much space. Ryan Woolridge was regularly ducking under screens when they were given up top by Ford’s teammates, often allowing Ford to have a bit of space to shoot from deep. Needless to say, Woolridge got burned a number of times—to the tune of 28 points for the Gaels’ high scorer. Luckily Ford didn’t go off like he did last night in the Quarterfinals of the WCC tournament where he gathered 42 points in a double-overtime win over Pepperdine, hitting a crazy, pivot and shoot 3-pointer with both the shot clock and the game clock counting down in the second overtime to put the game out of reach for Pepperdine despite 43 points from one of the few guys in the WCC—or anywhere for that matter—who can match Ford’s effectiveness at point guard, the Waves’ Colbey Ross.
In the second half of the Zags game versus Saint Mary’s, Admon Gilder inherited the defensive assignment on Ford, with what must have been the express instruction from Mark Few to not worry about helping on defense against any other players—and to just stay in Ford’s grill the whole time. This was an excellent adjustment and Ford’s lackluster 2nd half was a testament to Gilder’s hard work and excellence on defense. Gonzaga found that Saint Mary’s offense just doesn’t work at all well without Ford and were able to pull away for the victory by just over single digits: 86-76.
Tillie had another uber-efficient night with his 6 for 8 performance shooting, 1 for 1 from deep, adding 4 rebounds and 4 assists to his 13 points. But Joel Ayayi may have topped him in efficiency and stats in the game as he shot 4 for 5 from the field, 2 for 3 from beyond the arc, and added 8 rebounds 4 assists, 1 steal and 1 block to his 12 points. Tillie’s sustained health and growing confidence on the court and Ayayi’s reemergence as a go-to on both ends of the court are great signs for Gonzaga coming into the WCC tournament on Monday.
While no one should count their chickens before they hatch, the game a whole lot of the country wants to see is Gonzaga vs. BYU in the WCC tournament championship game. A lot of the other teams and their fans, I suspect, want to see just how good both the teams are—and spoiler alert—they’re both really, really good. Of course Gonzaga has to beat a San Francisco team in the semifinals that has consistently challenged them on both ends of the court—scaring Zag players and fans for a full half last game they played—and throughout the whole contest the game before that in SF when the Zags, low on bodies minus Tillie, were down by double digits in the first half. BYU has to beat a very challenging Saint Mary’s team that showed stunning poise in the midst of adversity and has been a nemesis to the Cougars this year, handing BYU a loss on January 9th and almost doing it again in February when BYU came out on top of their second meeting by a slim 2 points.
My prediction is that Gonzaga and BYU win on Monday. Gonzaga, 87-66 over San Franicisco due to a couple very effective fine adjustments Mark Few cooks up to flummox the Dons and an excited and well-rested bunch of Bulldogs. Against BYU, I predict a close, fast-paced game—but a game in which Gonzaga finds the right strategy to limit Childs to 20 or less points and finds the Cougars shooters before they can hit the all the 3’s they hit last time the two teams played. I’m going to venture a score of 91-83, Gonzaga wins and punches their ticket early. BYU gets a bid, of course. And Saint Mary’s sweats a bit, but gets in as well. And maybe we see two WCC teams play in the big dance somewhere down the road. Wouldn’t that be a hoot! Good luck to all the WCC teams in the NCAA tournament, especially, of course, Gonzaga. Have a great Champs Week folks and a great March!! GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses