NEW YORK – For coach Mark Few and his Gonzaga Bulldogs, it’s almost always about approach.
And the one the Zags took against Butler in Friday night’s championship game of the Dick’s Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off proved to be off-the-charts appalling.
“I didn’t like our approach at all from any of our players – inside or outside,” Few said just moments after watching a disciplined, well-coached and fundamentally sound Butler team bounce his previously unbeaten Bulldogs 79-71 in front of Madison Square Garden crowd of 9,498.
“I thought they were a lot more aggressive than we were, and that led to some frustration, I think.”
Butler (6-0) continued its remarkable early season run by using some solid half-court defense and splendid outside shooting to knock the Zags (5-1) on their heels early and keep them there throughout most of the game.
Coach Todd Lickliter’s Bulldogs threw in nine 3-pointers in the first 16 minutes of the game to forge a 43-29 halftime lead that GU never seriously challenged. A.J. Graves, who carted off the tournament’s most outstanding player award, finished with a game-high 26 points for Butler, which upset Notre Dame, Indiana and Tennessee to earn a shot at Gonzaga in the NIT Season Tip-Off finals.
“I thought Butler just did a great job tonight,” Few said. “They outplayed us in any facet and every facet that I can possibly think of involved with basketball and definitely deserved to win.
“They executed better offensively, played harder on defense and played tougher than us inside. And they did a great job of getting the right people shots.”
Gonzaga, looking like a shell of the team that stunned No. 2-ranked North Carolina in Wednesday’s semifinals, was slowed early by a couple of foul calls on Josh Heytvelt – one of which came when the 6-foot-11 sophomore banged into a Butler player while innocently running down the court.
“Those two fouls took me out of the game right at the beginning,” said Heytvelt, the Zags’ only all-tournament selection, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds despite playing only eight tentative minutes in the first half. “It was a lot different game (than) the North Carolina game after that happened.
“But Butler did a great job on defense and offense with how they executed, so I don’t think those two fouls really affected the game.”
Some Zags fans might argue the point, but Few didn’t, opting, instead, to praise Butler and blame his own team’s problems on himself and his players.
“We’re good when we move the ball, share the ball and move our bodies,” he said. “And we’re bad when we just stand out there and dribble. Unfortunately, I thought we understood that.
“Again, all the credit goes to Butler. Those kids are tough, they’re really, really smart and they don’t force things. They really know how to play basketball.”
GU, after falling behind 63-43 in the second half, mounted a mini-comeback behind the shooting of senior Derek Raivio, who scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the final 4 minutes of the game.
“I wish I’d have done that in the beginning,” he said of his aggressive late-game surge that helped the Zags close to within 73-66 with 48 second remaining.
But Butler squashed any GU hopes of completing a comeback by milking the shot clock on nearly every possession and making 16 of 18 free throws down the stretch.
“They did that against Notre Dame at the end of the game,” Lickliter said of his Bulldogs’ last-game foul shooting. “When you have good technique and you shoot a lot of free throws, you’re pretty confident, and these guys should be confident.
“They’ve earned that.”
Raivio said Friday night’s game had an entirely different feel than Wednesday’s win over the Tar Heels, in which he scored 21 points.
“It felt kind of dry out there at times tonight,” he explained, “but most of that was our approach. We dug ourselves a hole by coming out real flat. That was a main part of it.
“And coming back against (Butler) isn’t easy, because they run the clock down, drive and kick on nearly every possession.”
Freshman guard Matt Bouldin, who finished with eight points, echoed Raivio’s comments.
“I just think we did a poor job on the defensive end,” he said. “We game up way too much penetration and allowed their shooters to shoot. We got ourselves deep in a hole and were trying to find our way out the rest of the game.
“That killed us.”
The Zags flew back to Spokane on a chartered plane immediately following Friday’s loss and were scheduled to practice this afternoon in preparation for Sunday’s 1 p.m. non-conference matchup against Idaho in the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Butler 79, Gonzaga 71
Percentages: FG .393, FT .885. 3-Point Goals: 12-36, .333 (Graves 4-13, Betko 3-4, Nellems 2-5, Crone 2-9, Streicher 1-2, Green 0-3). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 2 (Ligon, Streicher). Turnovers: 7 (Green 3, Graves 2, Betko, Crone). Steals: 10 (Betko 4, Graves 2, Streicher 2, Crone, Green). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .500, FT .731. 3-Point Goals: 4-15, .267 (Raivio 2-5, Altidor-Cespedes 1-2, Bouldin 1-2, Mallon 0-1, Pendergraft 0-1, Heytvelt 0-2, Pargo 0-2). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 4 (Heytvelt 2, Mallon, Pargo). Turnovers: 16 (Pargo 4, Bouldin 3, Heytvelt 2, Raivio 2, Kuso 2, Altidor-Cespedes, Mallon, TEAM). Steals: 5 (Bouldin 2, Mallon, Heytvelt, Raivio). Technical Fouls: None.
Halftime–Butler 43, Gonzaga 29. A–9,498.
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