LAHAINA, Hawaii – If the Gonzaga-Colorado game Monday looked familiar, it probably should have. Think Gonzaga-Michigan State, with Gonzaga playing the role of Michigan State and getting off the deck to win despite being outplayed most of the way.
The Bulldogs yielded seven 3-pointers and trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half. They were still down 11 with eight minutes gone in the second half. But a switch to a zone defense and a steady diet of guards Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray at the offensive end helped Gonzaga pull out a 76-72 Maui Invitational win inside a steamy Lahaina Civic Center.
“Now I kind of know what Michigan State felt like the other night,” said GU coach Mark Few, referring to the Spartans’ come-from-behind 75-71 victory. “We got outplayed for a large portion of the game, but our guys showed a lot of courage, toughness and willingness to stick to the plan and eventually it won it.”
Gonzaga (3-1) advances to play Wisconsin in the semifinals at 6:30 PST tonight.
For a long time Monday, it looked like Gonzaga was headed for the loser’s bracket. The Bulldogs lost track of Colorado’s shooters, particularly the taller players on a team made up mostly of guards, and paid three-fold.
Colorado (3-1) buried seven 3s in the first 14:30, sparking a 21-point turnaround after GU led 15-9. Gonzaga went to the zone defense with 5:30 left in the half and, while it didn’t silence the Buffaloes, it slowed the pace and virtually eliminated CU’s 3-point looks.
With Colorado’s offense contained, Gonzaga turned to Gray, who scored a career-high 27 points, and Bouldin, who delivered 16 of his 21 in the second half. The two combined to score 17 of the Zags’ last 19 points. Ten of Bouldin’s points came in the final 6:31. He gave Gonzaga its first lead since 18-15 with a pair of free throws with 4:35 left. His weaving baseline drive gave GU the lead for good, 69-67. Then he made a bank shot from 13 feet with 39 seconds left to bump Gonzaga’s lead to three.
“It was nice getting that one,” Bouldin said. “I knew (Colorado’s Cory) Higgins had four fouls so I figured he wouldn’t guard me too tough and I just attacked him.”
Gray, who was Gonzaga’s lone threat from long distance by hitting four of seven 3s, made two of four free throws, and Bouldin sealed it with a pair of free throws with 4 seconds left.
Between Gray’s free throws, the Zags forced a turnover when Nate Tomlinson lost the ball on an out-of-control drive down the lane.
“We didn’t have to shoot a 3 there because we still had a timeout,” said Colorado assistant coach Steve McClain, filling in for head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was with his ill mother in Chicago. “Nate would be the first one to tell you he wishes he’d planted, turned and threw it back to somebody.”
Gray had 14 points in the first half to keep the Zags within range. He made two 3s – one narrowing CU’s lead to 7 and another trimming the deficit to 4 with 9:34 remaining – that brought the partisan Bulldogs’ crowd to its feet.
“I was just looking to attack and put a lot of ball pressure on them. When things aren’t going well, it’s one of the easiest ways to get it going,” said Gray, who made 11 of 14 free throws.
Colorado, which limited Bulldogs interior players Rob Sacre and Elias Harris to 18 combined points, didn’t make a 3-pointer in the last 25½ minutes.
“It’s an intricate offense, the Princeton-style motion, and if you don’t have a long time to prepare it can slice and dice you, and they sliced and diced us pretty good,” Few said. “Under fire, from a very skilled, and I’d call them a great offensive team right now, the zone and our guys held up pretty well.”
Noted McClain, who was the head coach at Wyoming when the Cowboys upset Gonzaga in the 2002 NCAA tournament: “Great move by Mark. It slowed the game down a bit.”
Another key: Gonzaga only had one turnover in the second half, which curbed Colorado’s transition game. And the Bulldogs made 54.2 percent of their shots.
“It’s a win you kind of like to see your guys get because it wasn’t working,” Few said. “They were playing well and we weren’t, even to the point where they had us frustrated. I told our guys anybody can continue to play well if you’re a front-runner and things are going great. But the sign of a great competitor is if it’s going bad and you can flip the switch. We had several players do that and as a team we did that.”
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