It wasn’t too long ago that Gonzaga’s offense was drawing national attention (from ESPN's Jay Bilas and others) and ranked highly in several statistical categories.
That hasn't changed, but the offense has taken a backseat to the defense, which has emerged as the main reason for GU’s 5-1 start and hold on first place in the WCC.
For the fourth time in five conference games, Gonzaga’s defense was outstanding, the latest effort a 70-53 rout of Pepperdine on Thursday.
Here’s my game story. Read on for my day-after post.
—The defensive series that sticks in my mind came in the second half. Pepperdine's Stacy Davis drove into the middle of the lane and was met by three defenders. He dished the ball underneath and the three defenders quick shifted and swarmed Davis’ teammate, who was fouled. It typified Gonzaga's energy and effort to contest the Waves at all points on the floor.
“Everyone was on the same page and being aggressive,” said Kevin Pangos. “We’re weren’t trying to analyze things too much. We just took the game plan out there.”
It's happened before: Shooting percentages of San Francisco (25.5 percent), Saint Mary’s (31.9), Pacific (31.7) and Pepperdine (32.7). Santa Clara made 47 percent of its shots, but 15 turnovers led to 28 of Gonzaga’s 74 points.
San Francisco scored 41 points, Saint Mary’s 51, Santa Clara 60 and Pacific 64. Pepperdine needed a 12-3 closing run in the final few minutes to crack the 50-point barrier.
“We challenged all of their shots, did a good job on Davis,” Few said. “He’s a load. He was very aggressive early, but we did a good job of challenging his shot. And we blocked them off and gave them one shot.”
Said Sam Dower Jr.: “Really, it was just getting after them.”
Portland solved GU’s defense by making eight 3-pointers and hitting 52 percent of its shots and 77 percent of its free throws. The Pilots’ 82 points was second only to Dayton’s 84 vs. Gonzaga this season.
“We came off that tough loss to Portland,” Dower said, “so we had to be aggressive. This was a battle for first place.”
—Which is a nice segue to our next topic: Dower. He had a monster second half: 6 of 6 field goals, 6 of his 8 rebounds, 16 of his 18 points, an assist, one block, 4 of 5 free throws.
He was forceful, tough at both ends of the court. He rebounded in traffic, finished once with a nice move to his right hand, canned mid-range jumper and scored on putbacks. He absorbed a fall on his back, grimmaced and kept on battling. He decided to play without a back brace that he’s been wearing since the K-State game. Afterward he said his health is in the 95-100 percent range.
“He was flying to the ball, tough with the ball, he had three rebounds on (missed) free throws,” Few said. “We could count on him that good things happened when we went to him on the low block.”
Coupled with the emerging Karnowski (4 of 7 FG, 3 of 4 FTs, 11 points in 20 minutes), Gonzaga will only get tougher to defend with an inside-outside approach, particularly when Gary Bell Jr. returns from his broken right hand.
—Bell said he doesn’t think he’s that far away from returning and mentioned next week as a possibility. A lighter, smaller brace enabled him to shoot some jumpers at practice last week without pain. He’s had a couple X-rays on the hand and it appears to be healing well.
Bell was injured Dec. 28 vs. Santa Clara. At the time, he was expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
—Ryan Edwards played nine minutes with Karnowski and Dower both in foul trouble. He picked up three boards, three fouls and hit both of his free-throw attempts.
“I thought he came in and gave us some good minutes,” Few said.
STATS OF NOTE
—Gonzaga leads the WCC in scoring defense (58.5 points) by nearly 11 points (through Thursday’s games).
—Dower is closing in on 1,000 career points. He’s at 992.
—GU has won 39 of the last 44 games against Pepperdine. The Waves, who once led the series 26-6, now trail 45-31.
—Gonzaga made just 1 of 9 second-half 3s after hitting 4 of 9 in the first 20 minutes.
—Pepperdine’s assist-to-turnovers wasn’t pretty (8-16).
—The Zags had a 38-20 edge in points in the paint.
—Drew Barham’s stat line: eight points, two 3s, six rebounds, two assists and three steals in 30 minutes.
—For the first time this season David Stockton didn’t have at least one rebound.
Few: “It was on par with how way played in Spokane in that four-game home stand (to open the WCC) on both ends. Very efficient on the offensive end, took good shots, moved the ball instead of trying to score on the first action.”
Few: “That team came into the game very confident. They were feeling good, and we did a nice job of sticking with our plan.”
Pangos: “Our weekend isn’t done.”