Gonzaga has won 10 games this season. The 10th was unlike any of the previous nine.
This one was a grinder, possession by possession, offensively challenged at times, defensively stellar most of the way.
No. 8 Gonzaga and Akron traded bruises before the Zags found their stride in the final eight minutes, pulling away for a 61-43 victory Saturday in front of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The victory gives the Zags a 10-0 record for the first time since joining NCAA Division I in 1958-59.
It didn’t come easy. The Zags had their second-worst shooting performance of the season (40 percent).
“Defensively, we won that one,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “We certainly didn’t win it with our offense, but I think that’s a great sign for our club.”
Gonzaga’s defense has been pretty reliable all season. The best an opponent has shot against the Zags is 43.9 percent. The most points GU has allowed: 72. Akron became the second GU foe to score in the 40s (San Diego State, 48).
Akron made just 26.7 percent of its shots. The Zips didn’t have a field goal in the final 8 minutes and didn’t score in the last 7:27.
“It’s been good, our coaches have been challenging us to get it even better,” said guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who finished with 11 points and five assists. “Our goal is to be one of the top 10 defensive teams in the country.”
Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski played a key role at both ends of the floor. The 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior staged an entertaining duel for post position with Akron counterpart Isaiah Johnson (6-10, listed at 290).
Karnowski got the better of it, finishing with 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot. Johnson had 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting, nine boards and three assists.
“You don’t play a lot of those guys in college basketball,” Karnowski said. “I watched a lot of film, kind of prepared myself how to guard him. We had a couple of backup plans to double him, but coaches left me 1-on-1 and his shots weren’t falling.”
Few said Karnowski’s ability to defend Johnson solo helped the Zags pay attention to the 3-point line. The Zips came in averaging 11 3-pointers but made just 5 of 25.
“I thought they kind of equaled each other out and that hurt us a little bit,” said Zips coach Keith Dambrot, whose team collected 20 offensive rebounds and had an 18-2 edge in second-chance points. “We’re so used to scoring off (Johnson), but we had a hard time finishing over (Karnowski).”
GU reached its goal of holding Johnson (11 points) and Akron’s 3-point production (15) to less than 30 points.
Gonzaga led 23-17 at half, but the Zips closed within 45-42 with eight minutes left.
Jordan Mathews coaxed in a 3-pointer – after the ball kissed off the backboard and bounced several times on the rim – to put Gonzaga up by six. Akron’s Jimond Ivey had a chance to answer after being fouled on a 3-pointer but he made just 1 of 3 free throws.
Karnowski scored on a jump hook, Johnathan Williams finished inside and Williams-Goss penetrated for a layup and a 54-43 lead. Josh Perkins swished a 3-pointer and Dambrot was hit with a technical foul. GU capitalized to go up 61-43.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the prettiest of wins,” Williams-Goss said, “but I thought we did a good job staying consistent with our defensive game plan.”
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