PORTLAND – Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few suggested earlier this week that the Bulldogs’ rematch with Portland probably wouldn’t resemble the first meeting.
He was right. About the only similarity was that the Bulldogs won, but this time it was a hard-fought 74-62 West Coast Conference victory in front of 4,852 Thursday at the Chiles Center.
Gonzaga (17-3, 7-1 WCC), which beat the Pilots by 39 in Spokane last month, won its fourth straight to close the first half of the conference schedule. The Bulldogs remain one game behind Saint Mary’s in the loss column. The Gaels (9-0) defeated LMU 71-64 in Los Angeles.
The Bulldogs dug out from a four-point halftime deficit behind a steady performance from Elias Harris (17 points, 10 rebounds) and big second-half efforts by Robert Sacre (13 of his 16 points) and Gary Bell Jr. (17 of his 18 points) to wear down the Pilots (5-21, 2-6). Kevin Pangos missed all six of his 3-point attempts, but finished with 12 points and three steals on his 19th birthday.
“The first half reminded me of Saint Mary’s,” Harris said. “It was like we were sleeping and we didn’t compete. We had a good, loud speech from coach (Few) and we just came out and played Zag basketball. We played harder and made things happen.”
Former Gonzaga Prep standout Ryan Nicholas scored all 13 of his points as Portland, which led by as many as seven, grabbed a 29-25 halftime lead. Nicholas was scoreless in the second half, missing all four of his shots. GU made a defensive switch and put Sacre on Nicholas in the second half.
“Just to put a little more hustle, toughness on him and Rob is really good with that,” Few said. “I also thought Gary had an outstanding second half and made plays at both ends.”
The Bulldogs took the lead for good, 37-35, on Guy Landry Edi’s layup on an inbound play. Gonzaga went in front by nine but the Pilots connected on three 3s and pulled within 55-52. Sacre, who picked up two early fouls and played just 8 minutes in the first half, scored twice in the lane and made two free throws and Bell added a transition layup as Gonzaga extended its lead to 64-52.
“I knew I had to come out more aggressive, especially on the defensive end,” Bell said. “I didn’t bring a spark on defense like I usually do, and that came around a little bit.”
Portland got as close as seven, but the Zags put the game away by hitting their foul shots in the final 42 seconds. GU was 25 of 31 at the free-throw line, including 18 of 20 in the second half.
“In the first half we were trying to do something on the first catch and we’re never good when we do that,” Few said. “We got back to establishing ourselves, posting inside the lane instead of outside, and that led to early foul calls and got us in the bonus early.”
Gonzaga’s field-goal percentage soared from 31 percent in the first half to 68 in the second.
“We defended and made them work inside,” Pilots coach Eric Reveno said of the first half. “We limited their transition baskets and we were battling on the boards, but once they start getting it inside and/or getting out in transition they’re just really tough. They made some nice adjustments. We were hedging hard on ball screens and they slipped the bigs and ran them to the rim and we didn’t adjust accordingly.”
It was in stark contrast to the first half, which may have been Gonzaga’s most sluggish performance of the season. The Zags weren’t patient and made just four of their first 20 attempts. GU’s 25 points was its lowest first-half point total of the season.
Meanwhile, Nicholas scored 11 of his 13 first-half points in the final 7:30, beginning with a drive around Sam Dower and ending with a layup at the 1-minute mark.