Matt Bouldin’s first start for the Gonzaga Bulldogs was impressive enough Saturday night.
But just imagine if it’s only the start.
Electrified by an especially manic sellout crowd of 6,000, the freshman from suburban Denver returned the favor with a difference-making performance in the Zags’ 97-77 rout of 13th-ranked Washington – not exactly the coda the Huskies might have imagined to what has been a terrific college basketball series between the schools.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few juggled his starting lineup for the first time this season, inserting Bouldin and David Pendergraft for veterans Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes and Sean Mallon in the wake of Tuesday’s disappointing loss at Washington State.
Bouldin’ numbers may have been a revelation – 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, six rebounds and five assists. But Washington coach Lorenzo Romar wasn’t caught off guard.
“I told our staff – I told a few people – that it would surprise me if he didn’t start,” said Romar. “They’d lost a game and sometimes after a loss like that you just say, ‘All right, what are we waiting on? He’s the best all-around player. Let’s put him in there.’
“And it paid dividends. He’s really good.”
He showed it in any number of ways – following the block of his own shot for his first basket, feeding a cutting Altidor-Cespedes for a dunk, knocking down a 3-pointer from the top of the key to help defuse any notions of a UW comeback down the stretch.
“I was just trying to stay aggressive,” said Bouldin, who had hinted at a performance like this in a strong effort against then second-ranked North Carolina in New York City. “It’s one of the things they preach on me – to just play my game. I felt if I came out and stayed aggressive, I could get in the flow more.”
And, certainly, joining the starting lineup helped him get in that flow.
“Yeah, everybody wants to start,” he said. “I know I was excited and I’m sure Pendo was, too.”
But Few downplayed the importance of the lineup changes, noting that GU’s eight-man rotation was more balanced than ever. Indeed, Altidor-Cespedes pretty much decided the game with a long 3 and a steal for a dunk that pushed the lead back to 18 points with 4:48 to play, and Mallon had a crucial three-point play when UW had closed the lead to 11 – the closest it got in the second half.
“We’re going to move it around a lot,” Few said. “I wouldn’t get too used to the ‘iron five.’ “
But Pendergraft suggested that everyone get used to Bouldin.
“He showed people why he’s in the class of the best freshmen in the nation,” he said. “I’m glad to have him on my team. I hope he stays a while – at least one more year until I leave.”
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