SAN FRANCISCO – Elias Harris didn’t want his Gonzaga career to end without experiencing a victory at San Francisco’s cozy War Memorial Gym.
So the senior forward, 0-3 in three previous trips here, enjoyed a soak-it-all-in moment walking off the court after the Bulldogs’ 71-61 men’s basketball victory over the scrappy Dons on Saturday in front of 4,300.
“Believe me, this is a way better feeling,” said Harris, who notched his 26th career double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds. “When I was leaving I thought in my head, ‘This is what it feels like when you win in San Francisco.’ I don’t know, I thought there was a curse here or something.”
It looked like it might be easy afternoon for the fifth-ranked Bulldogs, who made 10 of their first 12 field-goal attempts and shot out to a 15-point lead with the game barely 7 minutes old. But strange things seem to happen to the Zags in this legendary building and San Francisco rallied within 34-27 at half, pulled even at 47 and trailed just 53-52 with 7:10 remaining.
Gonzaga went to its inside duo of Harris and Kelly Olynyk, sprinkled in a few hustle plays by reserve wing Drew Barham and made its last eight free throws to earn its eighth consecutive victory. The Bulldogs (25-2, 12-0 WCC) kept a tight grip on first place and will play three of their final four at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“If you look at how we executed down the stretch at Butler, although the last play was kind of foolish, we made play after play after play,” coach Mark Few said. “Same thing at Oklahoma State, same thing at Saint Mary’s the other night, at San Diego. We’ve been put in situations where these guys have been nails down the stretch.”
The key, Few said, was diagnosing USF’s ever-changing defenses.
“Every tape you watch, one time they’re not guarding guys and playing us soft, the next time they’re up denying, the next time they’re trapping the first pass,” Few said. “Once we saw they were dialed into extending out on us and really pressuring, I thought our guys did a good job of executing.”
Leading 53-52, GU came up with two offensive rebounds, one by Barham and the other deflected out to Harris, who had been knocked to the ground but snatched the ball from a seated position. The ball eventually went to Olynyk, who made a layup to start a 10-0 spurt.
Harris followed with a dunk. Barham grabbed an offensive rebound and made a pair of free throws. The 6-foot-6 wing pulled down another offensive board that Olynyk finished by stepping around a defender for an easy layup. Another Olynyk basket goal capped the run.
“They got into our guards and got in the passing lanes,” said Olynyk, who made 13 of 17 field-goal attempts and scored 26 points. “It kind of opened up the middle for Elias to punch it and for me to seal off their guys.”
Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Harris each hit two free throws in the final 80 seconds. Gonzaga, which didn’t attempt a free throw in the first half, made 14 of 18 in the second half.
San Francisco (11-15, 4-9) stayed close behind Cole Dickerson and Cody Doolin. Dickerson, who averages 14.6 points but went scoreless against Gonzaga last month, made three 3s and scored 15 points. Doolin added 14 points and six assists for USF.
The Dons turned up the defensive pressure in the second half, with mixed results. Matt Christiansen picked up three fouls in the first 48 seconds and GU was in the bonus with 13:12 left. Still, USF chipped away at Gonzaga’s lead and caught up at 45 and 47. The Dons had a couple of chances to take the lead, but misfired on jumpers.
“They were really bumping, scratching, clawing, pushing,” Olynyk said.
“Everything,” said Pangos, seated nearby in a cramped locker room.
“If it was a multiple-choice test it would definitely be all of the above,” Olynyk joked.
Gonzaga dominated the boards for the second straight game. Led by Harris’ 13, GU had a 45-29 rebounding edge and a 10-4 advantage in second-chance points.
“It’s just another win in February,” Few said. “You have to keep plugging along. We’re still on track with all of our goals.”