LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – In its first close game of the young basketball season against a defensive-minded opponent, Gonzaga finally found its rhythm offensively in the second half.
Gonzaga’s defense was solid throughout and when junior guard David Stockton began picking apart Clemson’s defense with six-second half assists, the 17th-ranked Bulldogs were able to dig out a 57-49 victory at the Old Spice Classic in front of 2,076 Thursday at the HP Field House.
The victory moves Gonzaga (4-0) into the semifinals against Oklahoma (3-0), which held off UTEP 68-61, at 4:30 PST tonight. West Virginia and Davidson square off in the other semifinal.
“We were kind of struggling to score. Clemson was pressuring and kind of breaking us out of things,” junior forward Kelly Olynyk said. “Stockton made a couple of great plays, got us some easy (baskets) and that allowed us to get into the swing of things.”
Olynyk, who missed the first three games for violating the Student Code of Conduct, started and played 24 minutes. He scored 13 points, tying Elias Harris for team-high honors. Harris added nine rebounds and four assists. Sam Dower contributed 11 points and Kevin Pangos had nine.
But it was Stockton’s passing – he finished with a career-high seven assists – that allowed Gonzaga to get some separation from the Tigers (1-1). Tied at 33 with 12:30 remaining, Stockton dished to Olynyk for a jumper just inside the 3-point arc.
Then it was Pangos feeding Guy Landry Edi for a breakaway dunk, with Olynyk’s screen near the free-throw line clearing Edi’s path to the hoop. Stockton fed Olynyk for easy layups on the next two plays and Gonzaga led by three. Stockton then scored his only bucket on a driving layup.
Stockton strung together three more assists, one to Harris for a three-point play and a pair to Dower for easy layups as Gonzaga took control 54-44.
“Just all stuff we’ve practiced,” Stockton said. “I’m trained to look for them every time. If they’re open, it’s going to be layups.”
It was a complete turnaround from the first half, when Clemson’s pressure defense bothered Gonzaga, which came in leading Division I at 94.3 points per game. The Bulldogs made just 33 percent of their shots and trailed 24-23.
Gonzaga hit 14 of 20 second-half attempts (70 percent) and finished at 49 percent overall.
“We tried to get them focusing on how easy they were to guard if all they did was come down and do one thing, one action on every possession, whether it was a ball screen or a pin down,” GU coach Mark Few said. “This is a good passing team and we like sharing the ball and it’s important we do that.
“David is a phenomenal pocket passer, those little pockets that come open on ball screen and rolls. There may be a little window there that not many people can hit, but he can really find them. He’s very adept at those, and he’s not afraid.”
The Tigers’ athleticism gave GU fits, especially early.
“They’re just hard to score on. We don’t have that in practice, those types of athletes guarding the rim like that,” Few said. “And to be honest, we haven’t really seen that this year in our scrimmage (with Texas) or against West Virginia.”
GU countered with its depth.
“Our guys did a really good job of getting the tempo we wanted,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “Gonzaga is very talented, unbelievable versatility. You saw them play three guards 6-2 and below and you saw them play, what, 7-foot, 7-foot and 6-9 for a while. They can play a lot of different ways, but the real key was Stockton in the second half.”
Clemson shot just 31 percent from the field, 27 percent on 3-pointers. Reserve guard Adonis Filer scored a team-high 10 points.
“Against a lot of teams we would have won,” Brownell said. “But against a team as good as Gonzaga, you’re just not going to win playing as poorly (offensively) as we did.”