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Analysis: Brandon Clarke leads Gonzaga into Sweet 16 with record-breaking performance

UPDATED: Sat., March 23, 2019, 11:21 p.m.

Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke  high-fives fans Saturday as he heads to the locker room after the Bulldogs’ 83-71 win over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament  in Salt Lake City. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke high-fives fans Saturday as he heads to the locker room after the Bulldogs’ 83-71 win over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SALT LAKE CITY – Brandon Clarke is a relative newcomer to these high-pressure NCAA Tournament games.

He seems to be a fast learner. It took him all of two games to put his name in Gonzaga’s record book and join select company in NCAA Tournament annals.

Clarke dunked, blocked and boarded – nothing new for Zags followers, but perhaps an eye-opener for some nationally – powering top-seeded Gonzaga into its fifth straight Sweet 16, the longest active streak in Division I.

Clarke’s numbers – 36 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and 90 text messages waiting for him when he checked his phone in the locker room – led Gonzaga past ninth-seeded Baylor 83-71 on Saturday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“I came here for these moments,” Clarke said. “For it to finally be here is something that feels great. I’m just looking to the future games and future wins that we have.”

Clarke’s 36 points tied his career high, set when he was a sophomore at San Jose State. He broke Adam Morrison’s program record of 35 in an NCAA Tournament game (vs. Xavier in 2006, also in Salt Lake City).

Clarke joined Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson as the only players with at least 35 points and five blocks in an NCAA Tournament game.

Gonzaga (32-3) faces No. 4 Florida State on Thursday in Anaheim, California, a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 matchup won by the Seminoles in Los Angeles.

Zach Norvell Jr. was the first to greet Clarke after the final buzzer, meeting him at midcourt with some loud praise. Rui Hachimura, who had a rare off night battling foul trouble and physical defenders, was next in line with a hug for Clarke.

“He was big-time, man, on both ends of the floor,” Norvell said. “We talked before the game and he said he was going to bring the energy.”

The Zags needed everything Clarke delivered, in part because Hachimura couldn’t get untracked, scoring just six points. His first field goal came with 6:50 left.

Clarke was unstoppable, working around or soaring over a trio of Baylor defenders who took turns on the 6-foot-8 junior. Clarke drew nine fouls, several of those called on Mark Vital. The 6-5 forward was Baylor’s best offensive weapon with 17 points, but he had to back off on defense in the second half, saddled with four fouls.

Clark made 15 of 18 shots, but he tipped in one of his own misses.

“They did a great job of isolating him,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, who pointed out Clarke’s ability to elevate quickly. “We couldn’t keep him off the glass. He had four (offensive rebounds), but I remember them all.”

The first half couldn’t have gone much smoother for the Zags. That was apparent during a 16-2 run, when Geno Crandall floated a lob pass intended for Clarke and it found the bottom of the net, cutting out the middleman.

Clarke was a good option on nearly every trip down the floor. He had three dunks and a couple more buckets from close range, finishing the half with 18 points as Gonzaga built a 39-23 halftime lead.

The Bears (20-14) opened the second half with a 10-0 run and eventually cut GU’s lead to five. Clarke responded with six straight points, including a tip-in jam of Killian Tillie’s miss.

Gonzaga’s supporting cast made timely contributions. When the Bears went to a zone defense in the second half, Norvell, Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert buried 3-pointers.

“We knew after Brandon was making so many plays they were probably going to go zone and try to close things up,” Norvell said. “So toeing the line up and being ready to shoot was huge.”

Perkins had consecutive assists and Hachimura added both of his field goals as Gonzaga stretched its lead to 70-58 after Baylor had cut the lead to eight.

“We’re a deep team and when somebody is having an off night, we pick up for each other,” said Perkins, who had 11 points and six assists.

Kispert made four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. Hachimura’s hustle earned GU an extra possession late when he tied up a Baylor player who had just grabbed a rebound.

The Zags shot 54.4 percent and piled up 19 assists.

“Obviously, (Clarke) is a very athletic and talented dude,” Baylor guard Makai Mason said, “but their shooting really opens it up. You can’t really help on him because they have great shooters.”

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