DENVER – The Gonzaga Bulldogs have picked an ideal time to be playing their best basketball of the season.
It seems the bigger the game, the better the Zags perform. On the road against Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga pulled out an overtime win. Neutral court versus the Gaels in the WCC tournament title game, GU owned the last 8 minutes and won going away.
And Thursday, against a fast, talented St. John’s team with six wins over Top 25 opponents, the 11th-seeded Bulldogs took command with a 12-0 spurt early and cruised to a convincing 86-71 NCAA tournament second-round win over the sixth-seeded Red Storm in front of 19,216 at the Pepsi Center.
The seedings would suggest an upset. The outcome indicated just the opposite.
“We played great,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team will face third-seeded BYU (31-4) at 4:45 PST Saturday. The Cougars, who will join the WCC next season, eliminated No. 14 Wofford 74-66.
St. John’s (21-12), ranked 18th, jumped in front 8-2, but the Zags quickly found their stride. Elias Harris’s 3-pointer triggered 12 unanswered points, capped by Steven Gray’s steal and layup. GU led 24-14 and was never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
“When they jumped out and got ahead of us, I was kind of nervous because that hasn’t happened in a while,” said junior guard Marquise Carter, who led Gonzaga with 24 points and six assists. “After we calmed down and started playing, we started going up three, five, seven. It just came natural to score and get defensive stops.”
The 18th-ranked Red Storm had no answer for Gonzaga’s inside game or perimeter shooters. Harris scored 15 points and backup forwards Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk combined for 12. Robert Sacre had some problems finishing inside, but he contributed nine points and nine rebounds.
Gray hit four 3-pointers, the most he’s made in 12 games, and finished with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“Gonzaga played excellent at both ends of the floor,” Red Storm coach Steve Lavin said. “They sustained both a level of effort and execution that was as impressive as any team we’ve faced this year.”
Gonzaga carved up the Red Storm’s vaunted zone defense. The Bulldogs’ shooting percentage was in the 60s most of the game before they cooled late to finish at 54 percent.
“A lot of preparation and good practices the last couple days,” Harris said. “They were trying to force us to turn the ball over – that’s a big part of their game, to score off your turnovers and mistakes and get out on the break – but we didn’t give them many chances to do that.”
Carter, Gray and Demetri Goodson took care of the ball against the Red Storm’s full-court pressure. The trio finished with 15 assists and seven turnovers.
“You don’t understand how much we worked against the zone,” Carter said. “We had a couple of GU alums (Casey Calvary and Matt Santangelo) playing physical against us in a zone and it helped us a lot. So when St. John’s played it, it didn’t affect us at all.”
Sacre had a couple of early dunks, and then Harris took over, scoring eight points in Gonzaga’s 12-0 burst. Gonzaga’s lead grew wider, to 13 on Goodson’s two free throws, and to 15 on Carter’s putback. The Red Storm scored seven of the last 10 points, including a 3-pointer by Justin Brownlee just before the buzzer, to narrow Gonzaga’s lead to 43-32 at half.
Dwayne Polee’s three-point play 30 seconds into the second half trimmed Gonzaga’s lead to eight. Harris, Carter and Gray hit 3s to hike Gonzaga’s lead to 52-38. The margin remained in double digits to the final buzzer.
“We did a great job attacking the press, attacking their zone and really playing at our pace, which is what we talked about doing all week,” Few said.
Gonzaga dominated the boards 43-20. At halftime, St. John’s had eight rebounds and Sacre had seven.
“That was a key part for us to be successful,” Sacre said. “In this tournament, the refs aren’t going to call a lot of things and that’s not anything bad toward them because they’re going to let you play. We wanted to be aggressive.”
Goodson had six points and four assists, but his biggest contribution was at the defensive end. He guarded Dwight Hardy, who finished with 26 hard-earned points on 10-of-23 shooting.
“I thought Meech had his best game he’s played here,” Few said.
“He did a nice job defending Hardy. He got a lot of his points when Meech wasn’t on him.”