Anyone who thought Gonzaga would simply cruise through the remainder of the West Coast Conference season after opening with three road wins over teams considered to be their principal competition got a 40-, uh, make that an 80-minute reminder that’s not going to be the case.
Two days after having their hands full with Pepperdine, the Gonzaga Bulldogs broke away from a halftime tie to defeat Loyola Marymount 85-69 Saturday in front of another sell-out crowd of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Pepperdine and LMU, picked to occupy the bottom two spots in the WCC preseason poll, made the 15th-ranked Bulldogs (16-3, 5-0 WCC) work for a pair of victories. GU held off the Waves 91-84 on Thursday.
“The league is getting a lot better,” center Robert Sacre said, “and I’m happy about that because guys have always ragged on Gonzaga, saying we have a soft league. It’s not like that anymore. LMU beat Notre Dame and USC. It’s going to be a fight from here on out.”
Elias Harris (22), Matt Bouldin (19) and Steven Gray (18) combined for 59 points. Sacre bounced back from a scoreless first half with seven points and helped Gonzaga to a 22-14 edge in second-half rebounds. Grant Gibbs came off the bench and provided eight points and six rebounds, including a putback of Sacre’s missed free throw that extended Gonzaga’s lead to 59-49 with 13:50 remaining.
“We had some foul trouble (with the starters) and I got in and tried to make the most of it,” said Gibbs, who didn’t play last week because of an illness. “The better I play when I’m out there, the more minutes I’ll get. That’s on me.”
LMU (10-11, 1-4), playing without four of its top seven scorers because of injuries, showed plenty of fight, escaping from an early seven-point hole and a late nine-point deficit to pull even at 42 at intermission behind junior guard Vernon Teel’s 16 points.
The outmanned Lions played zone defense but it didn’t exactly slow down the Zags, who shot 51.8 percent and used an inside-outside approach to get to the free-throw line 38 times.
“I like man-to-man (defense), but I like it when our man is better than their man,” LMU coach Max Good said. “I don’t like it when their man is way better than my man.”
The Bulldogs scored the first eight points of the second half. They appeared on their way to a blowout after Bouldin scooped up a loose ball near the free-throw line and finished with a two-handed dunk to make it 74-57 with 8:15 left.
LMU rattled off nine straight points, but the Bulldogs answered with five free throws and Sacre fed Gray for a dunk to extend Gonzaga’s lead to 81-67 with 3 minutes remaining.
“The thing you don’t want to do (against zone) is sit out there and shoot 3s,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I thought we did a great job attacking it and the 3s we took were good looks. Almost every 3 was after we had checked inside or got it inside. That’s what you want to do.”
Gonzaga had 20 assists, one shy of its season high, and played the first 12 minutes of the second half without a turnover. Harris had a season-high four assists as the Bulldogs had a number of successful high-low post plays.
“To score as many points as we did and find out that we shot 18 percent from 3, that shows we were getting things going to the basket and putting pressure on them so they couldn’t just sit in there,” Gray said.
The Bulldogs also clamped down defensively in the second half after LMU made 53.3 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
“We had most of our main guys in there,” Few said. “Gray is a heck of a defender. When he’s not out there, it makes it more difficult for us. When Rob isn’t out there, he’s probably our best rim protector and definitely our best interior defender. We’re just not as solid without those two in there.”