Season openers are routinely filled with stretches of good and bad, particularly for two teams trying to blend in a number of new faces.
That was the case Friday but Gonzaga’s most experienced players – even if some of that court time came while wearing the uniform of a different school – did what coaches expect of seasoned veterans.
Seniors Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews combined for 30 points. Juniors Nigel Williams-Goss and Silas Melson teamed for 31 as the Zags pulled away from Utah Valley 92-69 in front of a packed house of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“That’s to be expected,” said Mathews, who dropped in four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points and five assists. “When I was a freshman and sophomore it was the older guys that steadied the ship. Myself, Nigel, Silas, guys like Josh (Perkins) and Przemek, we’ve been through every type of game. You just have to fight for 40 minutes.”
The Zags never trailed but they didn’t completely put away the scrappy Wolverines until the final 9 minutes.
Three factors allowed GU to enjoy a double-digit lead most of the way. One, the Zags were efficient offensively, hitting 52.2 percent of their shots, seven 3s and 15 of 18 at the free-throw line. Two, they did a nice job corralling a Utah Valley offense that tried to make it a track meet and a 3-point shooting contest.
And three, GU cleaned up on the glass (51-31) and on the interior (42-24 edge in the paint points). Karnowski made 7 of 10 shots for his 14 points, but it was the penetration of Williams-Goss and Melson that augmented the lane production.
Melson made 8 of 10 two-point attempts en route to 17 points, one away from his career high.
“Lot of things I’ve been working on, my paint work, getting to the basket, getting to my floater,” said Melson, who added four assists. “My 3 wasn’t falling, I airballed my first shot, so I had to find answers somewhere.”
Melson also delivered defensively, opening up against Brandon Randolph, who had a triple-double in Utah Valley’s exhibition win, and switching on to Conner Toolson in the second half.
Randolph was a non factor with seven points on 2-of-12 shooting. Toolson made three 3-pointers and scored 14 points to keep Utah Valley within 13 at halftime but he cooled off in the final 20 minutes, as did the Wolverines’ success beyond the 3-point arc.
“They’re a hard team to guard,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They run offense at Mach speed, spread you out and shoot 3s basically from the first pass over half court, and they showed some great patience really spreading us out.
“I thought we did a pretty good job defending all that action.”
Utah Valley’s offense has a BYU feel, fast-paced and freedom to launch from deep. But the Wolverines mostly misfired against GU, making 36.4 percent from the field.
“It’s not going to be picture perfect the first time out, but I was happy with how we competed,” said Williams-Goss, who finished with 14 points, eight boards and six assists. “We kind of withstood their runs and made our runs.”
Utah Valley is breaking in 11 new players, including a handful of transfers. Gonzaga has a similar mix with four transfers and four freshmen, three of whom made their debuts.
Freshman Zach Norvell didn’t play but “he’s going to be warmed up and ready to go,” Few said. “We’ll just play it by ear.”
Check back later this season and both teams should look decidedly different.
“That is a great team, and they’re going to be way better than this in four months and we’re going to be way better than this, too,” Wolverines coach Mark Pope said. “I don’t know if anybody is walking out of the gym feeling great about anybody’s performance but they did a great job with their length, challenging at the rim, and being disciplined to stay out of help and staying with shooters.”
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