LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Gonzaga put it all together – dunks, 3-pointers, transition game, defense, toughness, composure – to take Tennessee apart Sunday night.
The ninth-ranked Bulldogs led by as many as 18 in the second half, held off a late Tennessee challenge and stamped themselves squarely in the national picture with an impressive 83-74 victory in the Old Spice Classic championship at The Milk House.
The Bulldogs (5-0) figure to move up the rankings by winning what is arguably the best tournament in the country, along with four teams ranked above them (No. 3 Louisville, No. 5 Michigan State, No. 6 Texas and No. 8 Notre Dame) dropping games during the week.
Gonzaga beat three foes from power conferences – Oklahoma State of the Big 12, Maryland of the ACC and No. 12 Tennessee, the preseason SEC favorite – at the tournament and answered a number of questions about itself in the process.
“It just puts us over that hump to show everyone across the country we can play basketball and we’re not a soft team, by any standards,” said senior guard Jeremy Pargo, who was named tournament MVP after scoring 10 points and distributing seven assists.
Gonzaga won a tournament for the first time since taking the BB&T Classic in 2003. The victory was Gonzaga’s first over a nationally-ranked, non-conference opponent since a 90-86 win over No. 23 Stanford on Jan. 31, 2007. In a game that had NCAA tournament intensity, the Bulldogs spent the better part of the first 35 minutes dominating the Volunteers before stumbling near the finish line.
GU’s lead melted from 74-56 with 5:09 left to 77-71 with 1:34 remaining, but free throws from Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs, and a dunk by Pargo sealed the win.
“It’s a great accomplishment, not just this win but all three,” head coach Mark Few said. “To dig out three wins is really a great accomplishment, but the flip side is it’s the last week of November. Right now, this week, it’s probably as good as anyone’s done.”
It was done with another balanced effort. Steven Gray came off the bench and shrugged off a shooting slump 30 seconds after checking into the game. He buried the first of his four 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 19 points.
“I put in a little extra time during walk-through and it felt good then,” Gray said. “Just seeing that first one go definitely made me more comfortable out there and to just go out and play, knowing that part of the mind game was over.”
Tennessee’s relentless, contest-every-pass style can play mind games with opponents. Gonzaga experienced as much last December when 18 turnovers helped the Volunteers to an 82-72 win in Seattle. This time, Gonzaga had 14 turnovers and outscored the Vols 24-19 in points off turnovers.
Pargo, who had six turnovers in Seattle, committed only two.
“This is why he came back, to play in games like this and to show he’s a lot better, show he’s a lot older and he understands the game better,” Few said of Pargo, who went through the NBA pre-draft process before pulling his name from consideration. “He was able to hear things from the decision-makers at the next level that reinforced what we told him, that he doesn’t need to score to dominate a game. He just needs to quarterback his club and that’s what he did.”
Pargo had a lot of receivers to throw the ball to. Bouldin had three 3s and scored 17 points. Josh Heytvelt, who joined Pargo on the all-tournament team, hit a pair of 3s and finished with 15 points. Downs contributed 12 points and helped slow down Tyler Smith, the Volunteers’ primary scorer. Smith scored 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting.
“It was a quiet 17,” Downs said. “He’s a great player; they have a great team. We just battled, everybody on the team, everybody from Pargo to the last guy on our bench in slacks and a polo.”
Gonzaga was effective in man and zone defenses, but Few went to the 2-3 for lengthy stretches after Austin Daye, Ira Brown and Pargo got into early foul trouble. Tennessee made just 35.5 percent from the field. The Volunteers’ biggest weapon was offensive rebounding, a whopping 27 that led to 13 second-chance points.
Heytvelt was miffed at the rebounding statistics, but couldn’t be happier with the rest of GU’s game.
“If we would have played the same type of game in Seattle we would have had them, but we were a lot less mature and a lot less physical last year than this year,” he said. “Those are the biggest reasons why we got the win tonight.”
Gonzaga closed the first half with an 11-3 run to take a 35-31 lead. Downs put Gonzaga in front for good with a soaring one-handed dunk as the trailer on a fast break. Gray’s 3-pointer following a Bouldin steal capped the run.
Bouldin and Heytvelt combined for nine points in a 12-2 spurt that stretched Gonzaga’s lead to 69-54. Tennessee made it interesting in the final minutes before Gonzaga regrouped.
“We didn’t fall apart when they went on their runs,” Heytvelt said. “We stuck together, that’s something we didn’t have last year. We would kind of go into a shell. I think we’re in a really good spot with our chemistry, how we’re shooting the ball and how we’re playing defense.”
Gonzaga 83, Tennessee 74
Percentages: FG .355. FT .765. 3-Point Goals: 7-24, .292 (Hopson 3-6, Tatum 2-7, Chism 1-2, Woolridge 1-5, Maze 0-1, Smith 0-1, Prince 0-2) Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 5 (Chism, Woolridge, Maze, Prince, Hopson). Turnovers: 21 (Smith 3, Tatum, Chism 5, Maze 2, Negedu, Prince 5, Hopson, Williams 3) Steals: 5 (Chism, Maze 2, Hopson, Williams). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .519. FT .720. 3-Point Goals: 11-20, .550 (Gray 4-6, Bouldin 3-4, Daye 2-2, Heytvelt 2-3, Brown 0-1, Pargo 0-1, Downs 0-3) Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 7 (Daye 2, Heytvelt 2, Pargo, Downs, Goodson). Turnovers: 14 (Daye 5, Heytvelt 2, Pargo 2, Bouldin 2, Downs, Goodson 2) Steals: 9 (Daye, Heytvelt, Pargo 3, Bouldin 3, Brown). Technical Fouls: None. Halftime–Gonzaga 35, Tennessee 31. A–3,194.