In the minds of many, it wasn’t supposed to be this entertaining. Or last this long.
And it certainly wasn’t supposed to be this close.
But Mark Few and his Gonzaga Bulldogs got exactly what they were expecting Monday night when the winless University of Washington Huskies blew into The Kennel and forced the Zags into overtime before bowing 95-89.
“I knew the Huskies were going to come in here and get after us,” Few said after watching his Bulldogs (3-2) shake off a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation by UW’s Will Conroy and send a sellout crowd of 4,000 home happy – and relieved.
“They gave just an incredible, courageous effort and just stayed with it and stayed with it. But so did we.”
And in the end, thanks to the free-throw-line heroics of Blake Stepp, the Bulldogs were able to stick with it just a little bit longer than the hard-luck Huskies (0-3).
Stepp, who had his arm in a sling during the weekend, fought through the pain of a wrenched left shoulder to score a career-high 33 points – 28 of them in the second half. The 6-foot-4 junior guard, after taking just two shots in the first half, made 6 of 10 second-half field-goal tries and banged down 16 of 20 free throws, including eight in row in the final 1:51 of the overtime.
“That’s the beauty of Blake Stepp,” Few said. “He’s not afraid to try to take over a game. What you saw tonight was vintage Blake Stepp.”
Stepp, forced to do most of the ball handling after senior guard Winston Brooks left the game with an injured knee with 7 minutes left in regulation, hurt his shoulder while lifting weights – without a spotter – Saturday. He missed both of the Zags’ weekend practices, but informed Few he was going to play shortly before Monday night’s opening tip.
“We tried to limit his minutes,” Few said, “but he ends up with 38. So I guess I didn’t do a very good job with that.”
As it turned out, the Bulldogs needed every second they could coax out of their star guard.
UW, which lost at home to Montana State in its season opener, played 45 minutes of inspired and productive basketball under first-year head coach Lorenzo Romar.
Even with junior forward Doug Wrenn struggling to find his offensive rhythm, the Huskies had GU looking up at a 44-36 deficit early in the second half after Conroy – who finished with a career-high 32 points – banged home back-to-back 3-pointers.
The Bulldogs managed to reel in the Dawgs with about 9 minutes left in regulation, and the teams proceeded to throw haymaker after haymaker at each other’s forehead.
Gonzaga, which got 18 points from backup forward Ronny Turiaf and a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double from Cory Violette, carved out a 79-74 lead with 44 seconds remaining. But Conroy scored on a pull-up jumper in the lane, added a pair of free throws and then, with less than a second left, answered a Stepp free throw with a long 3-pointer from the right wing to force overtime.
“We played a lot better tonight,” said Conroy, who made 13 of 17 shots, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range. “But nothing cures losing except winning.”
The teams battled on even terms throughout much of the extra period, but the game was decided with 54 seconds left when Violette stuffed the Huskies’ Bobby Jones from behind under the basket.
The ball bounced out of bounds off Jones’ leg, and Stepp was fouled immediately after taking the inbounds pass for GU. He then calmly drilled a pair of free throws to make it 91-87 and added four more in the final 30 seconds to hold off the Huskies.
“That is a heckuva basketball team,” Romar said of the Bulldogs. “But our guys came into this game, despite being 0-2, believing they could win. And I told them we can ride back to Seattle on the bus knowing we left it all out there (on the floor) tonight.”
Wrenn, who averaged 19.5 points per game as a sophomore last season, finished with 11, but made only 3 of 17 basket tries. Still, the Huskies managed to shoot 47.1 percent (33-70) as a team and offset GU’s 41-32 rebounding edge.
The Bulldogs continue their hectic early season schedule with a Thursday night matchup against Montana in Missoula before traveling to Pullman for a Saturday night showdown against Washington State.