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Gonzaga shows it can compete with college basketball’s best heading into game with UIW

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 29, 2017, 4:59 p.m.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few chats with an official as the clock winds down in Thursday’s victory over Ohio State. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few chats with an official as the clock winds down in Thursday’s victory over Ohio State. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Grand pronouncements early in the college basketball season are not in Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s verbal playbook.

Sweeping generalizations are few from Few. The Zags’ 19th-year head coach stresses the long term – incremental improvement over the course of a five-month season.

Still, Few was mostly pleased with Gonzaga’s performance at the PK80. The Zags went 2-1 and took third in the Motion Bracket. The double-overtime loss to Florida, now ranked sixth, was dazzling from tipoff to the final buzzer.

The Zags were a whisker from playing in the title game and from finishing 1-2.

“It’s big,” Few said of the difference between 2-1 and 1-2. “We feel like we should have went 3-0 in this thing, but we feel we also represented ourselves great and competed at the highest level.”

And that was perhaps the biggest takeaway from GU’s four days in Portland.

“I walk out of here knowing we can compete against anybody in the country now and we did not know that coming in,” said Few, whose team entertains University of the Incarnate Word on Wednesday. “We hadn’t really played anybody coming in.

“There were some question marks but if you go back to our scrimmage (vs. current No. 9 Texas A&M) and now this (tourney), I think we’ve proven we can definitely play with anybody in the country.”

Florida is an NCAA title contender that should only get better when center John Egbunu returns from injury. Texas suffered two overtime losses, including a heart-breaker against No. 1 Duke. The Longhorns are receiving votes in the poll and clearly on the rise.

“We’re at the level to win these games,” Gonzaga sophomore forward Killian Tillie said.

Big tests are coming. No. 15 Gonzaga tangles with No. 25 Creighton on Friday at the McCarthey Athletic Center and takes on No. 4 Villanova next Tuesday in New York City.

The Zags, as they did in three double-digit wins in a season-opening home stand, had multiple weapons offensively, connected from the perimeter and got to the free-throw line. Johnathan Williams dominated Florida inside en route to 39 points.

The Zags limited Ohio State to 59 points and Texas was sitting at 42 points with six minutes remaining before staging a frantic comeback. Florida put up 111 points on GU, but 78 came in regulation, 22 below its season average. The offensive-minded Gators had 53 in the first half against Duke and 74 by the midpoint of the second half.

Gonzaga held its own on the boards: plus-4 against Ohio State, even with Florida, minus-2 versus Texas. The Zags had turnover issues, particularly against the Longhorns’ full-court pressure. GU committed 24 turnovers, its most since 25 vs. Washington State in the 2010-11 season.

“I think this team can really be something special if we keep getting better,” senior guard Silas Melson said. “Florida was No. 7 (last week) in the country and they’re legit, top 10. Texas was just battling with Duke, that’s a tournament team, too. Coming in and competing in this tournament, you can find confidence, you can find hope, all of that.”

The Zags’ next assignment is the University of the Incarnate Word, a member of the Southland Conference.

The UIW Cardinals are in their second season as a full Division I member.

The visitors from San Antonio opened the season with three blowout wins over Division III foes before falling to Loyola Marymount 91-87. Houston hammered the Cardinals 97-58 on Saturday.

Simi Socks, a 6-foot-6 junior from Zimbabwe, 6-6 Christian Peevy and 6-7 Charles Brown III average between 14.0-14.6 points and 5.0-5.5 rebounds. Shawn Johnson, a 6-5 guard, chips in 10.6 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds. Johnson has a team-leading nine 3-pointers but the Cardinals are shooting just 26 percent from distance.

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