A Sunday afternoon watching Gonzaga basketball on ESPN2 sounds like fun, right?
After all, the undefeated Zags – having won their first 10 games – were in Nashville for a showdown with the SEC’s Tennessee, a rematch of last year’s Battle in Seattle.
Except, for much of GU’s 86-76 win, the game wasn’t the show.
The three officials seemed to be.
Karl Hess, Jamie Luckie and Brent Hampton were the stars of the game this day – or at least they seemed to think so.
The trio combined to call 56 fouls – 55 personals and Mark Few’s first technical foul of the season.
That one came courtesy of Luckie, who called a foul Few was pointing out with 10 minutes, 57 seconds left in the game, and then called another.
But maybe the veteran coach was asking for that one as well?
Because the technical, which resulted in just a single point for the Volunteers (6-5), seemed to wake up a somewhat dormant second-half Gonzaga offense.
A layup by Nigel Williams-Goss, part of his game-high 20 points, then a 3-pointer by Jordan Mathews, kicked the Gonzaga lead back up to 16 – the Zags led by as many as 21 in a near-perfect first half. And, though Tennessee would pull within four twice down the stretch, the Bulldogs were able to hold on.
Not that the action would have been called fast and furious, even as the game got closer. The near-constant whistles took care of that.
“I said in the first half there have been some curious whistles that have gone against Gonzaga,” ESPN play-by-play man Tom Hart said after Few’s technical. “This is a veteran crew that has probably had better days.”
Hart’s use of the word “curious” was an apt choice, though inferring they were one-sided may not have been.
Both teams shot 33 free throws. Both had players foul out – Silas Melson and Zach Collins for GU and Jordan Bowden for UT. And both seemed to be affected by the choppy pace, though the over-enthusiastic whistle-blowing didn’t seem to affect the outcome.
Gonzaga’s defense took care of that.
And Hart’s partner, former Tennessee All-American Kara Lawson, wasted no time pointing that often-overlooked GU strength out.
“This is an elite defensive team,” Lawson said with less than 7 minutes elapsed in the first half and Gonzaga leading 22-6. “They have the size, they have the ability on the defensive end of the floor to make you take tough shots.
“Mark Few has been pleased with their first-shot defense … (because this is a team) that makes you take contested shots.”
It was sentiment shared by former college coach Seth Greenberg, supplying commentary in the ESPN studios at the half.
“Gonzaga’s defense has been terrific,” he said.
How terrific? In the first half, Tennessee, which was averaging more than 80 points a game coming in, shot 23.5 percent from the field. The Vols were just 3-of-12 beyond the arc. But 10 free throws helped ease the pain a bit.
So did shooting better from beyond the arc in the second half, hitting 7 of 17. Still, Tennessee finished converting just 30.4 percent of the field goal attempts.
All of which impressed Lawson, who was seeing Gonzaga in person for the first time this season.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said as the Zags were overwhelming the undersized Volunteers in the first half.
And so were the rest of us as the game stretched well beyond two hours, due mainly to the incessant whistles.
None of which seemed to kill the mood – or Gonzaga’s season-opening winning streak.
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