We did see flashes of that brilliance early in the game against the Cougars on Monday night. The Bulldogs came out with guns a-blazing to open the game when Corey Kispert hit the first basket of the game—a 3-pointer, assisted by Jalen Suggs. Then, after Kispert missed his second attempt from long range, he collected his own rebound and sent a bullet pass to Joel Ayayi cutting under the basket for an easy lay-up. Andrew Nembhard stole the ball on BYU’s next possession, and it was Ayayi’s turn to serve it up to Nembhard who hit a shot from beyond the arc to put Gonzaga up 8-0. The pummeling continued from there as Ayayi got another assist when he sent the ball to Drew Timme at the top of the key for a rare 3-pointer from the big man. That was followed up by another steal and a break-away lay-up for Suggs, followed by a jumper from Suggs—those 4 points putting Gonzaga up 15-2 with just 3 minutes and 12 seconds gone from the clock. At that pace, the Zags could have scored well over 100 points easily—and when the Bulldogs are passing well and getting transition baskets off steals on the defensive end they’re rarely far from the century mark.
However, the blistering pace they started the game with wouldn’t continue as the Bulldogs seemed to let up on the gas and invite BYU back into the game. BYU’s leading scorer, Alex Barcello, hit some excellent shots throughout the game and finished with 20 points and 5 assists. Apart from some of the Cougars’ well-defended shots that fell, it seemed like Gonzaga got lazy on defense, missed assignments and rotations, and allowed some lay-ins that must have had Mark Few slapping his forehead repeatedly. The game seemed like the sort of Cat and Mouse scenario you may have witnessed at some time in your life where a Cat (Gonzaga) has an injured mouse (BYU) and toys with it, allowing the mouse to very nearly get away (Gonzaga lets BYU score a bunch of baskets and get within 10 points) before it swats it back into its clutches (Gonzaga scores and widens the lead). And some frustration develops in the observer/fan at not seeing the cat simply put the mouse out of its misery. That inability to put BYU away led to a 41-31 score at halftime and a consistently less-than-out-of-reach lead for the Bulldogs.
Part of the reason BYU was still in the game throughout was a really poor performance at the charity stripe from many Zags players, especially Drew Timme. It was Kispert’s 2 free-throws at the end of the game that helped Gonzaga raise their free throw percentage over 50%, finishing 12 for 21 as a team, including Timme’s 3 for 9. One is inclined to forgive the second-leading scorer for Gonzaga for a bad night at the line as he was brilliant everywhere else. Timme managed a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds, shooting 8 for 12 from the field, adding 2 steals and 1 block.
Timme, however, wouldn’t end up leading the game in scoring as Jalen Suggs simply took a whole lot of Cougar defenders to school. He was deadly from deep, shooting 2 for 4 from beyond the arc—and he went 10 for 18 from the field overall. It was Suggs’ 4 field goals in a row in the second half between the 11 and 8-minute marks that brought the Bulldogs’ lead to its largest margin at 72-50. It would remain a comfortable margin that the Cougars could never muster the firepower to make uncomfortable again even as that lead dwindled in the last few minutes.
Suggs had a game-high 24 points, adding 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals to his stat-line. His propensity to foul too often has been the only thing keeping a cap on his statistics lately in WCC play. Nothing short of brilliant in his ability to drive by defenders on his way to the basket and finish from all angles, we saw him hit mid-range jumpers and score on a few floaters from 8 to 10 feet in the BYU game as well. His ability to pass and defend are elite and with his shooting stroke from deep becoming more and more consistent, there will be no stopping Jalen Suggs short of a superhuman effort in the NCAA tournament. Foul trouble could become a difficulty, but even if Suggs continues to have trouble in that area, Andrew Nembhard is always there to fill any gaps in play at point guard—and to play along-side him on the wing as well. Nembhard, a transfer from Florida who has proven to be an absolute blessing for Gonzaga this season, got a rare start against BYU in place of power forward Anton Watson. Nembhard finished his night with 15 points on 6 for 10 shooting. Off the bench, Watson continued to be a force on the defensive end and remained highly efficient on offense, going 3 for 3 from the field for 6 points.
Though Corey Kispert struggled most of the night in a 4 for 10 effort shooting, he was the fourth Zag player with double digits scoring, earning 13 points and hooking up twice from beyond the arc in four attempts. Joel Ayayi’s struggles were even more severe as he couldn’t hit from deep on three attempts and went just 1 for 6 from the field. Ayayi remained productive, however, by adding 7 rebounds and 4 assists to his 4 points. Kispert is bound to be hounded by opposing defenses as the Zags leading scorer, but look to both Kispert and Ayayi to redeem themselves in the next couple of games.
After Thursday’s game against Santa Clara was postponed and/or cancelled, Gonzaga’s next game is another road contest against San Francisco on Saturday. After some lackluster performances lately in WCC play, I think the Bulldogs are going to use this afternoon (3 pm Pacific) game on ESPN 2 to show just how brilliant they can shine. My bold prediction is that Gonzaga surpasses the century mark on Valentine’s Day Eve, and holds San Francisco under 70. 105-68, the Bulldogs bark loud! GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses