I spent most of the last installment praising the triumvirate of Zags who scored 23, 24 and 25 against Kansas in the season opener on Thanksgiving—Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme respectively. Against West Virginia on Wednesday, December 2nd, in a game that saw Gonzaga face some serious adversity (including a scary ankle tweak for Jalen Suggs and a 9-point deficit in the first half), the Bulldogs had a new couple of players take the helm and guide the team home.
As West Virginia applied a choke-hold early in the game on Wednesday—in the form of relentless defensive pressure and strength on the offensive and defensive glass—consistent heroics came throughout the game from the dynamic duo of Andrew Nembhard and Joel Ayayi. These two Gonzaga upperclassmen provided the necessary kick that eventually allowed the Zags to break free and prevail. Nembhard earned ESPN’s player of the game honors after stepping up to take over the point guard duties when Jalen Suggs went out for a considerable spell after the painful ankle tweak he suffered with 7:07 left in the first half. Nembhard and Ayayi kept Gonzaga in the game through the first half and did more than their share to help the whole team rise up and put the Mountaineers’ hopes of an upset to rest later in the 2nd.
In a game that saw Gonzaga’s frontcourt struggling to find both rebounds and points against West Virginia’s physical forwards early, Ayayi added a much-needed scoring boost and led the team with nine points at the halftime break. He finished the game at 10 for 15 from the field, 1 for 3 from beyond the arc and had team-highs for the game in offensive rebounds (3), rebounds (7), steals (4) and points (21, tying his career high). Ayayi added 4 assists as well, none more important than the one late in the game, where he hounded a West Virginia rebounder on Gonzaga’s end after a miss, and with 4:20 left in the game, made a steal he had to track down in the far corner of the court, turned around and fed Corey Kispert at the wing who subsequently drained a three-pointer, giving Gonzaga a seven-point lead and a bit of the breathing room they sorely needed down the stretch. Ayayi creates opportunities everywhere on the court, simply does everything well and puts himself in all the right places to make great plays. Zags fans should kneel and bow repeatedly at his feet.
The same goes for Nembhard (yes, kneel and bow) who played 35 minutes, shot 8 for 14 from the field and 1 for 3 from deep, added 5 rebounds, 6 outstanding assists, 1 steal and just 2 turnovers. His 19 points (especially the 12 he had in the second half) and each of those assists were essential, not only to get Gonzaga the 34 points they struggled for in the first half that saw them down by 5 at the break, 34-39, but to boost them through the 53-point 2nd half that allowed them to flip the script and win by 5, 87-82. Gonzaga would come out of the gates quick in the 2nd, going on a 6-0 run to put them up by a point. And then the lead would see-saw between the two teams until the 6:00 mark when 2 Gonzaga assists from Anton Watson and Andrew Nembhard led to a layup by Timme and an alley-oop dunk by Kispert. The Zags held onto the lead down the stretch with a death-grip as numerous bigs on both teams fouled out—West Virginia’s forwards exiting a bit more quickly than Gonzaga’s. Loads of credit should, of course, go to the coaching staff for making the necessary adjustments that led to that success—but Nembhard and Ayayi’s consistency allowed the rest of the Zags to find a higher gear after halftime, play better team basketball, and ultimately prevail.
Drew Timme, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, is perhaps the best example of finding that higher gear in the 2nd half. Stymied through much of the first half, going just 1 for 9 from the field and getting beat repeatedly on the boards by the Mountaineers’ forwards, Timme found all but 3 of his 17 points in the second half. He was the grateful recipient of assists from Cook, Suggs, Nembhard, and Watson. Perhaps Mark Few told the Zag players at halftime to make backcuts to the basket to try to stop West Virginia’s defense from overplaying them in the passing lanes because many hoops in the half came off such cuts. Few also likely told the team, and Timme in particular, to try to get fouled. Timme had three and-1 lay-in baskets in the second half, 2 of which he converted for a three the hard way.
At least as important as getting points on those 3-point conversion opportunities, Timme added a notch to the Mountaineers’ forwards foul total. Before fouling out themselves, the two Zags frontcourt starters were able to draw significant fouls on Oscar Tshiebwe and Gabe Osabuohien who both put up excellent numbers rebounding and scoring for West Virginia, before fouling out. The outstanding Derek Culver was hit with 4 fouls as well, which helped put a bit of a lid on his 18 point, 15 rebound double-double.
Oumar Ballo, Gonzaga’s young giant who hails from Mali, earned a share of the praise for stepping up alongside Nembhard and Ayayi on Wednesday. Though young and raw, Ballo is an intimidating physical presence down low—exactly what was needed to help match up against West Virginia’s spectacular frontcourt. In his play so far, Ballo has shown improvement with each game as he adjusts to the spped of play—and he was an important part of getting all three of those outstanding Mountaineer big men in foul trouble and, thus, limiting their production and opening up opportunity for Zags players. In his 10 minutes, he was 1 for 1 from the field, had 3 rebounds (2 offensive), and drew three West Virginia fouls. Not only did he draw the fouls, Ballo hit 80 % of his free throws when he was fouled—going 4 for 5 from the charity stripe. Gonzaga’s great depth in the backcourt only becomes great depth all around if they’ve got at least one big man who can come off the bench and contribute considerably. Ballo’s continued improvement is an excellent sign for Gonzaga’s season and Gonzaga’s team for a few years to come (before he goes pro).
Despite Ballo, Timme and Anton Watson’s best efforts, this was the first game so far in which Gonzaga lost the rebounding battle. West Virginia was, as expected, excellent on the glass and found 14 offensive rebounds and 41 total rebounds for the game while the Bulldogs pulled down 10 offensive boards and 36 total. Even more telling is a look at the discrepancy between the two teams in terms of rebounding from the forwards and centers. West Virginia’s forwards had a total of 32 rebounds while Gonzaga’s bigs (including Corey Kispert who seems to play more in the backcourt even though he’s listed as a forward) had 15. West Virginia’s two leading rebounders were Derek Culver with 15 and Oscar Tshiebwe with 9. The Bulldog’s bigs, Anton Watson and Drew Timme, had 4 and 3 respectively—and Gonzaga’s two leading rebounders in the game were guards (Ayayi had 7, Suggs had 6, followed by Nembhard and Kispert with 5). While it’s a testament to how well Gonzaga’s backcourt hits the glass, it’s not the best sign for the Bulldogs as they are soon to face opponents with similarly talented frontcourts that could dominate on the glass.
Though they lost the rebounding battle, Gonzaga made up the difference by winning the battle in a number of other important categories. The Zags limited turnovers and had 4 fewer than West Virginia with 11 to the Mountaineer’s 15. The Zags also had 22 assists and 9 steals to West Virginia’s 16 assists and 2 steals. Gonzaga’s unselfish passing ability, from every position on the court, was the difference in the game. It wasn’t always there in the first half, and when it really started clicking in the second, the Bulldogs made it all look easy. And while West Virginia was certainly stifling defensively, Gonzaga showed a defensive tenacity that, if maintained and improved upon, can lead to what all Zag fans are (secretly, perhaps) dreaming of: a national title and even an undefeated season.
Gonzaga’s second-leading scorer, Corey Kispert, had similar trouble finding his best game in the first half. Kispert ended up shooting 50% again from deep in a 2 for 4 effort. One of those shots behind the arc fell for him in the first half—and a few minutes later he added a 3-point conversion after his high-speed, fast-break Euro-step to the hoop ended with a foul called against West Virginia’s Sean McNeil. Besides being hit with the foul, McNeil got hit hard with Kispert’s elbow mid-Euro-step and the frustrated Mountaineer would only come back into the game much later after getting 3 stitches over the gruesome gash in his forehead. Before that drive, the Zags had trailed through the first 10 minutes of play, but took a momentary lead after the Kispert bucket and free throw put them up 17-18. The Zags would only hold that lead for 3 minutes before the Mountaineers turned things back around and Kispert would only add 1 more point to his two 3’s in the first. The recipient of a number of Suggs, Ayayi and Nembhard assists (including the aforementioned alley-oop dunk Kispert slammed home later in the 2nd off Nembhard’s toss), he was a bit better than 50% from the field at 6 for 11 for the night, had 2 assists, 1 block and tied Nembhard with 19 points and 5 rebounds. I’m hoping to see the senior shoot over 50% from deep this season—a task I know he’s capable of and that he wasn’t far from achieving last season.
While Jalen Suggs’ injury was a scary moment for Zag nation everywhere—noone wants to lose this amazing, immediately awesome freshman from even a minute of the time he’s available in a Gonzaga uniform—the fact that he and the team as a whole didn’t fold in the face of adversity is an excellent sign. These guys persevere and move forward no matter what. Especially Suggs, who shrugged off the pain and showed his mettle by insisting he reenter the game, showing that no matter what, even at his own risk, he’s going to contribute. Besides scoring on a lay-in and a reverse lay-in for the 2nd and 3rd baskets of the game for Gonzaga, Suggs contributed to all of Gonzaga’s first 8 points, with assists to Ayayi and Ballo for Gonzaga’s first and fourth baskets as well. While he didn’t have his usual scoring numbers because of the injury, I’m going to call his stat line a countdown to greatness and perseverance: He had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 points, 3 steals, 2 turnovers and 1 block.
Though stagnant in the first half, Gonzaga showed they can put serious points up against anyone in this game and some Bulldogs who hadn’t found their true rhythm yet, including Nembhard, Ayayi and Ballo, really stepped up and allowed the team to find the win against West Virginia. While the postponement of the game against Baylor is a serious disappointment for college basketball fans everywhere, Zags fans like myself can find the silver lining in this dark cloud. Suggs, though he toughed it out in the West Virginia game to finish, wouldn’t have been quite in top form on Saturday if he’d even been able to play. This delay (let’s really hope its just a delay and not a cancellation) will allow him to get ship-shape before what this Baylor game would have been—perhaps the supreme test of the season. Up next on the schedule is Tarleton State on Tuesday, the 8th of December, Southern University on Thursday, the 10th, Northern Arizona on Saturday, the 12th, and Idaho on Monday, the 14th. These games feel like the kinds of games Gonzaga would have scheduled early in a normal season and might provide a nice way to ease toward another supreme test, the #3 Iowa Hawkeyes on December 19th—and maybe even Baylor before Christmas? Some have floated the possibility of Baylor vs. Gonzaga on the 17th in Sioux Falls before Gonzaga plays Iowa in the same location—or maybe the 21st or 22nd? Or Christmas Eve? (Please, Santa? Go Zags!!!)
~ Clark Karoses