MALIBU, Calif. – Add Pepperdine’s quaint Firestone Fieldhouse to the list of WCC venues that seem to give the Gonzaga men’s basketball team trouble.
The 10th-ranked Bulldogs, outplayed most of the first half, turned the momentum with a timely contribution from their bench, a steady performance by Elias Harris and another strong second half from Kelly Olynyk to pull away for a 78-62 victory Thursday in the conference opener for both teams witnessed by 1,938, including perhaps 750 GU supporters.
Gonzaga (14-1) has won five straight entering Saturday’s showdown with Santa Clara (12-3, 1-0 WCC) at the Leavey Center, another of the Bulldogs’ least favorite destinations.
This one had a similar feel to last year’s contest at Firestone, when the improving Waves were within three points in the second half before Gonzaga slowly took control. Gonzaga used a 13-5 run to wipe out Pepperdine’s 36-35 early in the second half. Another 9-2 spurt gave Gonzaga a double-digit lead with 5:45 remaining.
“It wasn’t our best performance, but we were starting conference on the road and Pepperdine is getting better,” said Harris, who had team-highs with 18 points and six rebounds. “It’s a different Pepperdine than Pepperdine in the past. It was a battle, but we were poised enough to get the win.
“The depth we have is an advantage. It’s not like we have an eight-man rotation. We can go deeper and that showed tonight. We got a lot of energy from the bench.”
Gonzaga trailed 14-6 but caught up soon after David Stockton, Przemek Karnowski, Sam Dower and Mike Hart entered the game. Stockton piled up seven points, three steals and two assists in the first half.
“He was the one guy that was being proactive and I had a whole team of guys being reactive,” coach Mark Few said.
Stockton’s steal and clever layup underneath Caleb Willis’ arm gave GU its first lead, 23-21. Stockton followed that up with a 6-footer in the lane and then assisted on Gary Bell Jr.’s lone field goal, a 3-pointer from the corner with 3:15 remaining.
“I have the luxury to sit and watch and see what the team is doing and I can go out and just help in any way possible,” said Stockton, who finished with nine points, four steals and three assists. Stockton’s steals were instrumental in GU’s 21-10 edge in points off turnovers.
“That’s something I’ve always tried to do and kind of lost sight of,” Stockton said of converting steals into points. “It was fun to fly around and get my hands on a lot of things and disrupt a team.”
Olynyk’s only basket of the first half came with 43 seconds left but he warmed up in the final 20 minutes, much the way he did against Oklahoma State and Washington State. The 7-foot junior had 14 second-half points and a nice high-low feed to Dower as GU extended its lead to 12 with 5 minutes left.
Harris had eight of the starter’s 13 first-half points. He added eight points in the second half, including 6 of 6 at the free-throw line. Harris, Olynyk, Dower and Karnowski combined for 45 points, 18 coming at the foul line. The Bulldogs made 24 of 25 free throws in the second half.
“It was really important but that’s what we do,” Few said. “We have big guys that can put a lot of foul pressure on you.”
The Zags had slow starts in each half, endured their worst shooting night of the season (43.4 percent) and were outrebounded for just the second time (36-30), but they took care of the ball (eight turnovers) and put up 48 points in the final 20 minutes.
“We had some strange looking plays at the start, passing to guys and hitting them in shoulders, (guys) falling down and 2-3 blooper-type plays,” Few said. “Basically Pepperdine was outhustling us. They were more physical than us, which is rare because we’ve been pretty physical all year.”
Guards Lorne Jackson (16 points) and Jordan Baker (15) led Pepperdine (8-6), but they combined for nine turnovers.