NEW YORK – One of the biggest stages in basketball wasn’t too big for two of Gonzaga’s youngest players.
Redshirt freshmen Zach Norvell Jr. and Jacob Larsen were bright spots Tuesday in Villanova’s 88-72 victory over the 12th-ranked Zags at Madison Square Garden.
Norvell made his second straight start in place of freshman wing Corey Kispert, who is sidelined with a sprained left ankle. Norvell led Gonzaga with 22 points. He has scored 43 points in the last three halves against No. 4 Villanova and Creighton, ranked 25th at the time.
Norvell, who scored all 21 of his points in the second half of GU’s 91-74 victory over the Bluejays, dropped 15 on his 22 in the closing half versus Villanova.
“It was a cool experience,” said Norvell, who made 8 of 12 field-goal attempts. “You hear everything about the Garden and all the greats that have played here. I feel like the coaching staff did a good job of letting us feel out the environment, but we also knew we had to take the game plan serious and execute.”
The Zags slipped on those two aspects but the youngsters performed admirably in the spotlight.
Larsen logged 24 minutes, a career high, with senior forward Johnathan Williams unable to find his stride. Williams fouled out with just five points in 18 minutes.
Larsen produced 10 points, five rebounds and one block. He had back-to-back layups – snatching the ball away from a defender underneath on one – to pull Gonzaga even at 17.
“He functioned very well,” coach Mark Few said. “It’s encouraging for us. I think we can get 10-15 minutes a game out of him every night. He helped our offense flow better and he actually guarded some of their ball-screen action better than some of our starters.”
Larsen has proven to be an adept passer from the high post or inside the lane. He found Killian Tillie for a layup on a nice high-low feed.
“I definitely take pride in passing,” said Larsen, who had a pair of assists. “I think that’s an important skill for a big man to have to play the inside-outside game.”
Larsen has bumped his season averages to 5.7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 12.7 minutes.
Norvell was Gonzaga’s only reliable perimeter threat. He hit four 3-pointers on eight attempts. The rest of the Zags combined to make 2 of 14.
He’s hiked his scoring average to 11.3 after pouring in 60 points in the last three games.
“Zach obviously got in there and made a lot of plays,” Few said. “I’m still nitpicking him on some of the little things he needs to tighten up, but he wasn’t afraid. He made some really solid decisions and kept his head up.”
The Wildcats did just about everything correctly in a convincing win.
“How much they took their time, how disciplined they were,” said Norvell, when asked what impressed him about the fourth-ranked Wildcats. “Honestly they were playing a lot harder than us throughout the entire game. We’re going to get back in the gym and fix it.”
Larsen echoed Norvell’s thoughts.
“The key is that we stay together and focus on the plan,” the 6-foot-11 center said. “We didn’t execute that to the standard we wanted. We have to come together and raise our level for the next game.”
Kispert participated in walk-through and in pre-game warm-ups but said he didn’t feel confident on his ankle.
“I didn’t feel like I could make winning plays,” he said. “I feel like I would have been more of a liability than an asset.”
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