It’s a trend Gonzaga would like to put a stop to in a hurry.
The 15th-ranked Bulldogs outlasted Pepperdine 91-84 in front of 6,000 Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center to take sole possession of first place in the West Coast Conference men’s basketball race, but the celebration of their seventh straight win was a bit muted because the upstart Waves made GU squirm throughout the second half.
Senior guard Matt Bouldin scored a career-high 32 points and Elias Harris and Steven Gray each added 20 points as the Bulldogs (15-3, 4-0) won despite yielding 55 second-half points, 34 of those coming from sophomore guard Keion Bell.
“We have a lot of guys that can score baskets,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “but now we need to figure out some guys that can dig in and get a stop.”
The game was somewhat similar to Gonzaga’s 89-82 win over Saint Mary’s last week when it weathered Omar Samhan’s 25-point second half, which fueled the Gaels’ 49-point second half; and GU’s 81-78 victory over Portland two weeks ago as Robin Smeulders struck for 15 of his 24 points in another high-scoring second half.
“We’ve been trying to figure it out, doing different things in practice and really trying to emphasize playing 40 minutes of defense,” Gray said. “We’ve had a few games where we go to sleep or get content with our offense. We’re going to go back to work on defense (Friday).”
It was Bell who worked over the Zags for a career-high 37 points. It was the most points scored by an opponent at the MAC, eclipsing the 35 by Virginia’s Sean Singletary in December, 2005. Bell scored just three points in the first half, and those came on a trey with 2:35 left.
The Bulldogs led by double figures 6:30 into the first half and by as many as 15 before taking a 41-29 edge at intermission. The 6-foot-3 Bell, repeatedly piercing Gonzaga’s defense for layups and 5-footers in the paint, scored 22 of his team’s first 24 points in the second half to fuel a Waves’ rally.
“My teammates challenged me at halftime to come out and play as hard as I could in the second half,” Bell said. “They started playing off me. I think they were trying to force me to shoot the ball. Once they started being timid I started attacking them and getting easy layups.”
Pepperdine (7-13, 3-1) narrowed the deficit to seven on Bell’s dunk over Robert Sacre, but he was called for a technical foul, apparently for taunting, as the Waves ran down court. Bouldin hit both free throws and GU eventually stretched its lead to 15 again on Bouldin’s 3-pointer with 9:23 remaining.
Pepperdine trailed by seven after a pair of Bell free throws with 4:50 left and was within six on Lorne Jackson’s 3-pointer with 1:12 remaining. Gonzaga made 8 of 10 free throws in the final 55.3 seconds to seal the win.
“Our problem was our defense, it was a big disaster,” said Harris, who hit several tough shots en route to his third straight game with at least 20 points. “We just survived and won. It’s like Coach Few said: If we keep playing that way we’re not going to win the WCC. We need to change immediately.”
Bell made 14 of 21 shots and 6 of 8 free throws. He also had four assists and four steals, a couple of which he converted into layups early in the second half.
“We weren’t helping like we have all season. We usually have a lot more help on the back side, but even on the ball we didn’t guard him as well as we have,” Bouldin said. “He had a different kind of offensive package than we’ve seen. We’ve played some great guys (Oklahoma’s Willie) Warren, (Wisconsin’s Trevon) Hughes and (Illinois’ Demetri) McCamey, but those were all team efforts. We didn’t come out with that same type of fire.”
The Bulldogs, who entertain Loyola Marymount on Saturday, made 53.2 percent of their shots, but again struggled at the free-throw line (66.7 percent).
(15) Gonzaga 91, Pepperdine 84
Percentages: FG .444, FT .769. 3-Point Goals: 8-21, .381 (Bell 3-4, Thompson 2-7, Dupre 1-2, Suttle Jr 1-3, Jackson 1-5). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocked Shots: 1 (Moore). Turnovers: 9 (Bell 3, Dupre 2, Thompson, Darby, Kerry, Jackson). Steals: 7 (Bell 4, Thompson 2, Jackson). Technical Fouls: Bell.
Percentages: FG .532, FT .667. 3-Point Goals: 5-14, .357 (Bouldin 3-5, Kong 1-3, Gray 1-4, Goodson 0-1, Gibbs 0-1). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 0. Turnovers: 10 (Gray 3, Harris 2, Kong 2, Bouldin, Goodson, Olynyk). Steals: 5 (Gray 2, Harris, Kong, Olynyk). Technical Fouls: None.
Halftime–Gonzaga 41, Pepperdine 29. A–6,000.