Forget his impending retirement - for now, at least.
Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald has insisted all year long that his team, and the way it has responded to the early season injury to senior Paul Rogers, is the story.
And his Bulldogs did everything in their power to prove him right Thursday at Martin Centre by fighting through an off-night offensively to hold off the University of San Francisco 53-50 and regain sole possession of first place in the West Coast Conference.
GU (15-8 overall, 8-3 in the WCC) used 17 points and some late clutch free-throwing by senior guard Lorenzo Rollins to offset the slowdown tactics of the Dons (11-12, 6-5) and move one-half game ahead of idle Santa Clara in the WCC title chase.
The victory, witnessed by a crowd of 3,853, avenged a 71-70 loss to the Dons at San Francisco.
“That was a tough one to lose down there and a tough one to win up here,” Fitzgerald said after coaching his next-to-last home game. “They’re tough to play. They shorten the game, and they’re very athletic. But to our kids’ credit, we solved it - we solved it with effort.
“And I thought a senior (Rollins) really came to the front, and I’m happy for him. He’s struggled this year, but now - at money time - he stepped up for us.”
USF had the tempo slowed to its liking most of the game, and kept the Bulldogs out of synch offensively with inspired defensive work.
GU shot just 36.2 percent (17 of 47) from the field and turned the ball over 12 times, but Rollins hit four huge free throws in the final 20 seconds. Those shots helped maintain a lead the Bulldogs built early in the second half.
“Offensively, we were a disaster tonight,” admitted Rollins, who made 5 of 12 field - including 2 of 3 from 3-point range - and 5 of 6 free throws. “But we fought through it as a team and got the win.
“They kept (the score) down, but we proved to them that we can play that kind of basketball, too.” B The game was decided by an incident that was almost as ugly as the events that preceded it - an ankle injury sustained by USF’s Hakeem Ward just 5 minutes into the second half.
USF was up 32-31 when the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder was helped off the court. In the absence of any inside threat, the Dons turned the ball over on their next six possessions without getting off a shot.
Ward, who finished with a team-high 17 points, returned 5 minutes later. By then GU had reeled off nine unanswered points to take a 40-32 lead.
Ward connected on his first shot back and scored six more points down the stretch. But the Dons never cut GU’s lead to less than four points until Jamal Cobbs got a friendly bounce on a tough baseline jumper and made it 49-46 with 21 seconds remaining.
Rollins answered from the freethrow line.
“(Matt) Santangelo (five assists) and Rollins made the plays down the stretch when they had to,” said USF coach Philip Mathews. “And we only had one warrior tonight - Ward, and you can’t win with only one warrior.”
Mathews admitted Ward’s departure to have his ankle retaped hurt, but he was more distraught over his team’s 5-for-14 effort from the foul line.
“We had the score right where we wanted it at halftime, we outrebounded them (36-28) and we held them to what, 36 percent shooting?” he said. “But if you don’t hit free throws in a hostile environment like this, you’re going to lose.”
The Bulldogs will entertain San Diego Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in their home finale. It will also be the final home game for four GU seniors and Fitzgerald, who will retire at season’s end.
There will be distractions, Rollins admitted, but he hopes they won’t effect the outcome of the game.
“It (Fitzgerald’s last game) will be in the back of our minds,” he said, “but we’ve got to make sure we’re strong enough that it stays back there so we can focus on winning the game.”
Gonzaga 53, San Francisco 50
San Francisco (11-12) - Zimmerman 2-7 0-3 4, Rutherford 0-0 0-0 0, Duggan 1-3 0-0 3, Campbell 2-5 1-2 5, Ward 8-14 1-2 17, Cantrell 3-3 1-1 7, Cobbs 4-6 0-0 9, Nodilo 1-6 2-2 5, Nees 0-3 0-4 0. Totals 21-47 5-14 50.
Gonzaga (15-8) - Santangelo 1-8 1-3 5, Rollins 5-12 5-6 17, Hendrix 1-7 5-8 7, Leasure 4-5 0-0 10, Dench 4-8 0-0 8, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Nemeth 0-1 0-0 0, Frahm 2-5 0-0 6, Eaton 0-0 0-0 0, Griffin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-47 13-19 53.
Half time - USF 30, GU 27. 3-point goals - USF 3-10 (Zimmerman 0-3, Duggan 1-3, Campbell 0-1, Cobbs 1-1, Nodilo 1-2), GU 6-10 (Santangelo 0-1, Rollins 2-3, Leasure 2-3, Dench 0-1, Frahm 2-2). Total fouls - USF 16, GU 16. Rebounds - USF 36 (Cantrell 8), GU 28 (Santangelo, Hendrix 6). Fouled out - none. Assists - USF 5, GU 9. Technical fouls - none. Attendance - 3,853.
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