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Zags fight way to championship

Usually games this physical have players in shoulder pads and officials throwing flags.

Gonzaga fought past Cincinnati 61-59 on Wednesday to win the Maui Invitational. My unedited game story is below. Looks like we picked the wrong night to have early deadlines for Thursday's Thanksgiving paper!

Anyway, read on, and check back tomorrow for a day after post.

By Jim Meehan

Staff writer

LAHAINA, Hawaii – Turns out Gonzaga center Robert Sacre wasn’t far off when he said the GU-Cincinnati game would be “Muhammad (Ali) and (Mike) Tyson.”

There were knock-down screens, rugged play on the boards, bodies sprawled on the floor and any number of so-called hard fouls. One on Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright started a brief scrap early in the second half that resulted in technical fouls being assessed to Gonzaga’s Demetri Goodson and Sacre and Cincinnati’s Wright and Steve Toyloy.

But the Bulldogs threw the final punches. Sacre’s jump shot from the middle of the lane sent the game to overtime. There, Cincinnati misfired on 5 of 7 free throws and the Bulldogs capitalized. Sacre’s dunk put Gonzaga ahead to stay and the Zags held on for a 61-59 win to capture the Maui Invitational championship in front of 2,400 Wednesday at the Lahaina Civic Center.

“It was a street fight,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, as the theme from ‘Rocky’ blared over the sound system. “I loved our resiliency. It wasn’t going great for long periods of time, but we just stuck with it and stuck with it.”

The win should send the Bulldogs (5-1) into the Top 25 rankings. They were 26th in the most recent poll. Cincinnati (4-1) nearly pulled off a championship in its first trip to Maui.

“They know how to win,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. “They were never going to go away because their guys kept fighting.”

Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray shared MVP honors. They joined Adam Morrison (2005) as Maui MVPs.

Gonzaga, trailing most of the way, caught up at 50 on Bouldin’s 3-pointer, his first and only field goal of the game. Wright and Gray traded 3s, but Gonzaga missed a chance to go ahead when it turned the ball over with 2:10 left.

Cincinnati didn’t miss its opportunity as freshman forward Lance Stephenson, whose dogged defense frustrated Bouldin, got free with a crossover move and scored from 4 feet out with 1:50 remaining, giving the Bearcats a 55-53 lead. Sacre missed from 10 feet and Stephenson was off target on a 3-pointer.

Gonzaga called timeout with 39.3 seconds and this time the possession clicked. Sacre came open in the lane after setting a screen at the top of the key. Gray hit him with the pass and Sacred made the tying shot with 15.6 seconds left.

“Nice, simple play,” Gray said. “He was wide open.”

Sacre then blocked Yancy Gates’ shot as he attempted to finish a lob pass at the rim in the closing seconds, sending the game to overtime.

“Yancy told me he got fouled,” Cronin said. “The guys in the ESPN truck told me he got fouled.”

Few’s viewpoint was much different.

“He made an incredibly athletic play to turn and go back and make that block,” Few said.

Sacre’s overtime dunk came on another pick-and-roll and another feed from Gray.

“We worked too hard, everybody, in the preseason, not to win this tournament,” said Sacre, who finished with 14 points and five rebounds. “I’m really happy for all the guys.”

Wright missed a running 8-footer and GU’s Elias Harris grabbed the rebound as time ran out.

There was little in the way of offense for both teams in the first half. Bouldin and Gray couldn’t shake their defenders. Bouldin didn’t score until hitting a free throw with 3:10 remaining. Gray had five points, three coming on a 22-footer just before the halftime buzzer to trim UC’s lead to 23-19. The last time Gonzaga scored fewer than 20 in a half was when it trailed Washington State 28-19 in 2007-08.

The Bearcats trapped Bouldin with two defenders on Gonzaga’s first possession, and continued with the tactic most of the night.

“Stephenson did a good job denying me the ball most of the time,” Bouldin said. “I didn’t have it easy trying to get the ball, but that’s when the other guys came in and made plays.”

Both offenses warmed in the second half. GU finished shooting 42.6 percent, including 52.2 in the second half. Cincinnati launched 31 3s, making 8, as Gonzaga went with a zone defense for long segments of the game.

The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle, 40-35. The Bearcats outrebounded their first two Maui foes by 35.

“We made both offensive and defensive plays at the end to win it,” Few said. “We said if beat them on the glass we’d win the game and I thought that was a big key.”

 

 




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Jim Meehan
Jim Meehan's coverage areas include Gonzaga University men's basketball, Spokane Shock football, golf and volleyball. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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