At halftime, the Bulldogs found themselves struggling against a team that was gaining confidence, momentum and the belief that they could knock off the now #2 team in the nation on their home floor in both of these contests. In a the previous meeting on the 16th of January, when Gonzaga played Santa Clara in Spokane, the Bulldogs had opened up a halftime lead of 58-22. On Thursday the 30th, it was only a Ryan Woolridge layup with 7 seconds before the half that put the Zags up by more that a basket, 40-36 on the Broncos home court. On Saturday, playing very short-handed against San Francisco for the first time this season, it was a Jamaree Bouyea jumper as time expired in the first half that put the Dons up by 8 points, 43-35—and had San Francisco fans in War Memorial Gym hungry for the huge upset. SF had been up by as many as 12 points, 24-12, earlier in the half after heating up from beyond the arc.
One thing I’ve learned in my years as a Gonzaga fan is to have great confidence in the fact that Mark Few and his assistants on the coaching staff are going to make the best adjustments to cure any ills or woes at the halftime break—and that they will make everything better in the final half of play. The coaching staff did just that in both contests and the players came out with a vengeance after the break. Gonzaga notched two more WCC wins despite the fact that their star post, defender and sharp-shooter, Killian Tillie, went down with what looked like a nasty ankle sprain halfway through the first half of play on Thursday and missed the whole game in San Francisco.
Some Zags players stepped up in a big way in these contests to help make up for the loss of Tillie, playing long minutes and hitting baskets at critical times. Let’s start with Filip Petrusev, who had a career-high scoring night in Santa Clara. Before and after Tillie’s injury, Petrusev was absolutely brilliant at Santa Clara, receiving a number of lobs into the paint from Gonzaga guards and dunking them with flair to help him gain an amazingly efficient 14 for 18 shooting from the field. He was just one rebound short of a double-double, with a team-leading 9 rebounds, and added 3 steals to compliment his 31 points. It is the rebounding numbers that stand out in the contest as something the Zags truly took control over. Five Gonzaga players had over 5 rebounds in the game, and the Zags dominated the boards both offensively (10-5) and defensively (33-27), gaining 43 total rebounds compared to 32 for the Broncos.
At San Francisco, without our beloved Tillie, Petrusev did much the same—this time managing a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds on 8 for 14 shooting (you don’t get on the 20-man Wooden Award short-list for nothing). Accustom to being the team-leader in scoring and rebounding, anchoring the defense in the paint, and playing at or near 30 minutes, domination is nothing new to Petrusev. But it was his fellow big-man down low, Drew Timme whose clutch performance down the stretch and solid excellence throughout earned him player of the game in San Francisco. While not as dominant on the boards as usual, Timme came up with a career-high 19 points on Saturday afternoon in 30 minutes of play, with a 6 for 11 effort shooting from the field, an impressive 7 for 8 from the foul line, while adding 4 rebounds and 3 assists. After coming up with 2 blocks against Santa Clara and 5 blocks against Pacific the previous Saturday, Timme added another 3 against SF, including a key block with 23 seconds left as Jordan Ratinho went up for a layup to try to make it a single-basket game.
Though his career-high scoring game against SF was definitely an excellent one for Timme, the game against Santa Clara wasn’t half bad either. In 20 minutes of play, Timme went 5 for 8 from the field, notching 5 rebounds, 2 blocks and 11 points. One of the things that characterized these two games, besides some less than inspired defense by Gonzaga in both first halves, was struggle from the Gonzaga guards to find or to hit good shots, both allowing and requiring the big men to feast down low. Against San Francisco, Timme and Petrusev had the first 12 points of the game as the guards struggled against a hounding Dons defense that was disrupting the offense and forcing too many turnovers.
Mark Few called Killian Tillie his “problem solver” for good reason. His ability to shoot from anywhere on the court, especially from deep, allows him to drag defense away from other players, opening up so much for everyone else on the court (you don’t get on the Karl Malone Award 10-man short list for nothing). Without Tillie, both the Broncos and the Dons found Gonzaga’s defensive pressure and help often lacking and at times, hit mildly contested 3’s or slashed to the basket with ease. On the other end the Dons strove to choke Gonzaga’s offense with stifling, overplaying defense on the perimeter—a brand of defense that would have been much more problematic with Tillie’s versatility on the court. Though Petrusev and Timme are outstanding in their own right, Tillie adds so much to the Gonzaga line-up on both ends and it will be integral to the Zags success in the post-season that Tillie is healthy.
Against Santa Clara, we saw Corey Kispert and the Zags go ice cold shooting. Kispert was 2 for 12 from the field and 1 for 5 from deep, though he added 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks to his 9 points. Joel Ayayi, who adds a brilliant element whenever he plays, was a tepid 3 for 7 from the field, and 0 for 2 from deep—adding 8 rebounds, 5 assists and a block to his 7 points. Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder were the only guards who scored in double figures against SC, though both stayed below 50% shooting—and together could only knock down 1 3-pointer in 5 attempts. Woolridge was able to come away with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals for a very decent night, while Gilder added 11 points and 6 rebounds. The Zags finished just 3 of 16 from beyond the arc for an uncharacteristically poor 18.8% from deep. In fact, Gonzaga didn’t make an attempt from deep in the whole second half of that game at Santa Clara, or in the 1st half of the following game against San Francisco—that’s a downright frigid cold spell.
Luckily the big men were on point in both games and Gonzaga’s free-throw shooting wasn’t half bad either (72.7% against SC). If you take a look at the offensive play-by-play feed for Gonzaga in the second half of the game against Santa Clara, there’s not much variation. Hit the post is the major theme, or get it to him on the fast break. It reads something like: lay-up, lay-up, dunk, free-throw, free-throw, lay-up, lay-up, dunk, dunk, lay-up, free-throw, etc. That strategy ended up working very well as the Zags pulled away with a 15-point victory 87-72. No need to razzle-dazzle with the long ball, just lay it in, stuff it in the hoop or hit from the charity stripe—letting the big guys get a lion’s share of the grub, and the guards pick up some scraps.
Though the guards struggled through the second half of the SC game and the first half of the SF game, they more than redeemed themselves in the second half against the Dons. While the Zags only had 5 attempts from beyond the arc on Saturday, the only one they missed came in the first half. Both Kispert and Ayayi went a perfect 2 for 2 from deep for the game, helping the players lift themselves out of the hole they found themselves in at halftime. Held scoreless in the first half, Kispert went 4 of 5 from the field shooting for the game, adding 3 rebounds and a steal to his 11 points (you don’t get on the Erving Award 10-man short list for nothing). Ayayi, while only shooting 2 of 6 from the field, was just a rebound short of another double-double, adding 4 offensive rebounds and 5 defensive boards to his 12 points. Gilder (3-3), Kispert (1-1) and Ayayi (6-6) were all perfect from the charity stripe to help boost the Zags free throw shooting numbers over 78% in the contest. Gilder, master of the reverse lay-up and so dangerous everywhere on both ends the court, went 4 for 9 shooting from the field, had 5 rebounds and added a steal to go along with his 11 points.
Shooting 4 for 4 from beyond the arc in the second half may have been a huge boost for the Zags to pull themselves out of the hole they found themselves in, but it was getting the 3 the hard way that really won one of the most challenging contests so far for the Bulldogs. Fouls on both sides dominated play throughout in this unusually long game and every starter on the Zags roster had 4 fouls by the end except for Ayayi who had 3. Two Dons’ big men fouled out of the game and it was largely the ability of Gonzaga to get to the line that allowed them to prevail—especially because they often hit the basket on the way to the line as well as the additional free-throw. Just 14 seconds into the game, off the opening tip, Petrusev caught a pass from Timme down low, drew a foul on the way up and sunk the lay in. He is getting tougher and so much more willful down on the block lately. Petrusev added another bucket and foul shortly thereafter in the 1st, as did Admon Gilder a bit further along toward the half. Drew Timme added two and-1 conversions in the second half in a crucial stretch between 14 minutes and 9 minutes left that saw the lead change a number of times as the Dons battled to quell the Bulldogs’ surge.
The last and-1 conversion came after Taavi Jurkatamm made two free throws at 1:59 left to put SF up 76-75. Corey Kispert got the pass at the top of the arc and drove, muscling a bit of space to go up for the hoop and getting fouled hard, he managed to kiss in the lay-up off the glass for a triumphant score. Kispert had 5 points in the last 2 minutes in San Francisco, including the fade-away dagger with 35 seconds left that put the red wax on the victory letter that Gilder and Timme stamped by hitting three out of 4 free throws in the waning seconds to notch the Zags final points and send the players off to a gutsy 83-79 victory.
I have a few lingering difficulties to bring up. I mentioned offensive rebounding in the last installment. Rebounding was good against Santa Clara again on both ends, though shooting wasn’t stellar. Shooting against San Francisco looked pretty good number wise. The Zags were 27 for 50 from the field (54%), 4 for 5 from deep (80%) and stellar at the free throw line with 78.1% on 25 for 32 attempts (that’s 2 games of +70% FT shooting). Overall the Bulldogs edged the Dons on the boards 38 to 32 in total rebounds, but on the offensive glass, SF was able to track down 12 offensive rebounds, while Gonzaga only came up with 7. The Dons’ lower shooting percentages could account for some of those as they had more misses to try to track down the board for, but I think the Zags could improve in that category.
The truly worrisome statistic in the game, and perhaps the biggest reason Gonzaga found themselves nearly notching another loss, was in the area of turnovers. San Francisco limited themselves to a stellar 7 turnovers (anything under 10 in a game is quite good, I think). Gonzaga doubled that number and-1 with 15—every starter having at lest 2 and 3 players adding 3 turnovers on the night. Not so good there, especially in the first half.
Whatever we can say here, positive or negative, Gonzaga showed some guts and resolve in these road wins in California without one of their most valuable players, and learned some great lessons about perseverance despite adversity along the way. Luckily our team travels with some cushion, and Gonzaga fans made some noise and added some energy in San Francisco especially. They saw Gonzaga rise to the challenge with essentially a 6-man roster for 70 of the 80 minutes of play. Mark Few, talking after the game said: “They had us reeling there early” and asked about how he felt about the game and the way his players responded, said: “I’m proud of them. We’re low on numbers, low on bodies, low on everything, and we had foul trouble. So it was a very, very good win.”
Gonzaga has a heck of a schedule approaching. Though LMU coming to Spokane on Thursday may not sound so intimidating (the Zags beat them 87-62 on their court in January), its back to California after that to face the only team we haven’t seen in WCC play yet, the always intimidating Saint Mary’s Gaels—in the absolutely hostile (even truculent) gym in Moraga, on Saturday the 8th on ESPN. My guess, and everyone else’s that I’ve read so far, is to look for Tillie to play for sure in the game against the Gaels and more than likely not to play against the Lions in Spokane. It doesn’t get much easier from there as the Zags take another plane south to face Pepperdine the following Saturday the 15th (we only had a 5 point victory against the Tigers in Spokane), then facing San Francisco again 5 days later in the Kennel before traveling to BYU in a much anticipated contest on the 22nd in Provo that will hopefully pit superstars Yoeli Childs and Killian Tillie against one another in a dramatic battle. Exciting times ahead as Gonzaga does its best to keep both their record-setting conference win streak of 36 games, their home winning streak of 35 games, and their road winning streak of 16 games alive.
My prediction for this week (though if you saw my prediction last week you’ll probable want to take this with a grain of salt) is that Gonzaga shows up strong at home against LMU and bests the Lions 95-65. On the road against Saint Mary’s the Zags win by 11, 88-77. Best wishes to all and GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses