Zags smother Pepperdine with defense

Gonzaga’s Elias Harris is surrounded by Wave defenders as he looks to the basket during the first half. (Colin Mulvany)

Gonzaga’s offense ranks among the best in college basketball, but the Bulldogs’ defense, somewhat under the radar, is putting up impressive numbers as well.

The Bulldogs took control early by forcing Pepperdine into 15 first-half turnovers and rolled to an 82-56 West Coast Conference men’s basketball victory Thursday in front of another full house of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

No. 6 Gonzaga (22-2, 9-0 WCC) has held its last seven opponents to 64 points or less. Four of Gonzaga’s last five opponents have failed to crack 40 percent shooting from the field, helping the Bulldogs rise to No. 61 nationally in field-goal percentage defense. Pepperdine (10-13, 2-8) made 27 percent of its shots in the first half and trailed 35-20.

“Game to game it kind of depends,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “but we’ve definitely made a jump there in the last month and hopefully we can keep it going.”

The Bulldogs are atop the WCC standings, but Saint Mary’s (20-4, 9-1) remained close behind with an 84-63 road win over Santa Clara.

Pepperdine racked up nine turnovers against GU’s extended pressure before the Bulldogs committed their first turnover. One Waves’ cross-court pass was so far off target it hit assistant coach Ray Giacoletti on the GU bench. Another errant pass bounced off the foot of 7-foot, 300-pound center Jan Maehlen and into the first row of seats.

“In the San Diego game, we were a little tentative and that hurt us,” sophomore guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “We learned from that game and came out really aggressive on defense. When we play hard on defense, it makes our offense easier and the game a lot easier.”

Baskets didn’t come easy for Gonzaga in the first 20 minutes, but 16 points off turnovers helped the Zags build a comfortable lead. After missing their first four shots, the Bulldogs scored on four straight possessions and led 10-0. A 7-0 run late in the half pushed the margin to 17 points.

Gonzaga heated up in the second half, making 51.6 percent of its shots and 7 of 12 3-pointers. Nine players eventually scored and the Zags connected on 12 3-pointers – one shy of their season high – en route to their sixth double-digit victory in conference.

Pepperdine was within 12 early in the second half but the Bulldogs used an 11-0 spurt to boost their lead to 58-32.

Drew Barham, who made his first start of the season, Kevin Pangos and Kyle Dranginis connected on 3-pointers in the run.

“It was a different look tonight because they were just packing it in their zone so we were able to bomb away from 3,” Few said. “I think we were still pretty darn efficient.”

Pangos made four 3s and led Gonzaga with 14 points. Barham and Dranginis each hit three 3s. Kelly Olynyk had 13 points, four assists and four rebounds in 19 minutes. Przemek Karnowski added 10 points, his first double-figures game since Campbell on Dec. 19.

“I didn’t expect to shoot nine 3s, but when I’m open I can’t turn them down because that might be the best shot we get on that possession,” Pangos said. “I don’t know if teams don’t want to play one-on-one with our bigs, or guard our ball screens or sets, but we have a lot of shooters and our bigs can make plays against a zone.”

The Waves finished with 21 turnovers – which GU converted into 30 points – and made only 36 percent of their field-goal attempts. Freshman Stacy Davis scored 16 points, 10 in the second half. Guard Lorne Jackson, who averages 14.3 points, scored nine on 3-of-12 shooting. Guard Jordan Baker, who averages 11.7 points, was slowed by a bad back and didn’t score in 13 minutes.

Follow Gonzaga reporter

Jim Meehan on Twitter @srjimm

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