Gonzaga fans, buckle up and hang on. Your Bulldogs are at it again.
Granted, this NCAA Tournament ride might not prove to be as magical as last year’s sustained run to the Elite Eight. But it certainly got off to a promising start Thursday night as the 10th-seeded Bulldogs disposed of seventh-seeded Louisville 77-66 in the opening round of the West Regional at McKale Center.
With Richie Frahm playing at, perhaps, the highest emotional level of his career – and knocking down nearly every shot he looked at, to boot – GU overcame a season-high 24 turnovers and turned back a cold-shooting Louisville team that came in as a two-point favorite.
In the process, the Bulldogs took another step in proving that last year’s tournament run was no fluke.
“Oh, man, this is such a relief,” said Frahm, who finished with 31 points on 9-of-14 shooting. “It’s a load off our shoulders proving to ourselves that we can come back after a season like last year and win another game in a place like this.
“It feels great to get this win out of the way. I’m ecstatic.”
“Hopefully, it’s not the only one,” GU point guard Matt Santangelo said of the victory, which boosted the Bulldogs (25-9) into a second-round Saturday matchup against second-seeded St. John’s (25-7), a 61-56 first-round winner over stubborn Northern Arizona in Thursday’s late game.
The Zags and Red Storm (19-12) will tip it off approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of Saturday’s first game between Oklahoma and Purdue, which will start at 3:30 p.m.
“We didn’t come here just to play in the tournament and win one game,” added Santangelo. “We came to compete through the whole thing.”
Santangelo committed six turnovers, but scored 16 points and handed out three assists. Senior center Axel Dench added 14 points and six rebounds for the Bulldogs, who shot 57.1 percent (24 of 42) from the field and outrebounded the Cardinals by a convincing 35-28 margin.
But it was Frahm, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, who took over the game with his outside shooting and aggressive drives to the basket and made up for the lack of production from junior forward Casey Calvary.
Calvary, after leading the Bulldogs to the West Coast Conference tournament title by averaging 21.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in the three games, took only two shots – both dunks – and finished with just eight points and seven boards.
“They do a good job of denying entry passes and fronting the post,” first-year GU coach Mark Few said of the Cardinals. “They cover up their lack of size with bumping and athleticism, and whenever we tried to lob on them, that’s when we had most of our turnovers.”
But Frahm provided an answer to the shoddy ballhandling. “Like I’ve said before, we’ve got a lot of guys on our team who can do things,” he said. “And when they take one of them away like they took Casey away today, then one of the other options on our offense has to step up, and tonight I was able to do that.”
Frahm did some other things as well - like sprinting the length of the floor to block a breakaway dunk attempt by Louisville’s Quintin Bailey and swing the momentum GU’s way midway through the second half.
He followed the spectacular block with a transition 3-pointer from the left corner that put the Bulldogs in charge for good at 52-48.
“It was huge,” Santangelo said of Frahm’s block and fast-break bucket. “Not only was it a five-point swing, but it’s indescribable how it affected the momentum.”
Gonzaga tried to outrun Louisville from the opening tip and got a little ahead of themselves at times. The Bulldogs committed 10 turnovers in the first 14 minutes and found themselves trailing 32-25, despite making nine of their first 15 shots.
Both teams treated the basketball as if it were a Happy Meal prize throughout a sloppy, but entertaining, first half that ended with Louisville leading 39-38. There were 15 lead changes in the opening period, and GU had to feel fortunate to still be hanging around after its many misadventures with the basketball and its inability to defend against Louisville’s cutters.
But the Bulldogs shored up their defense at halftime and started forcing Louisville to shoot over their zone. The Cardinals couldn’t, as evidenced by their 28.1 percent second-half shooting, and when Frahm kept raining down jumpers, it was over.
“Obviously, it’s a great win,” said Few. “We dug our way out of a lot of adversity. We haven’t turned the ball over like that in years, and they were just such out-of-character turnovers. We weren’t being very mentally strong, but to their credit, our kids shored it up and when they did get the shots, they knocked them down.”
When asked about Frahm’s dominant performance, Few added, “I’m not going to say I expect that from Richie every game, but it’s certainly not a surprise.
“He’s had probably seven or eight 30-point games over the course of his career and he’s had practices where he hasn’t missed a shot, so I’ve come to expect quite a bit. I start thinking something’s wrong when he misses.”
Louisville coach Denny Crum gave GU credit for shooting the ball extremely well, but didn’t think much of his own team’s touch.
“We just could not make shots,” he said. “We actually had 22 more shots, but we shot it about as bad as you can shoot. If you don’t make shots, it doesn’t matter what else you do. Nothing looks good.”