Gonzaga coach Mark Few knew Friday night’s game in Orlando against Florida would be the Zags’ sternest test of the season to this point. And it was the same for their fans watching the AdvoCare Invitational semifinal at home in Spokane.
It wasn’t just the contest, a 77-72 Gonzaga win after the Bulldogs trailed by five at halftime. It was also the homespun nature of the ESPNU broadcast.
There was Dick Vitale, the longtime ESPN color commentary and well-known East Coast basketball fan. There was Mike Morgan, a Florida graduate, – as Vitale pointed out – on play-by-play. And there was the location of the game.
Maybe Few put it best in the postgame interview with Andy Katz, who was the only member of the broadcast team with strong West Coast connections.
“I like how we came down here,” said Few, his scratchy voice obviously not yet in midseason form, “faced some adversity and we didn’t cave.”
Adversity can take many forms in a basketball game and for 11th-ranked Gonzaga (5-0) it showed up early on the offensive end, it showed up late on the defensive end and it showed up all game at the scorer’s table.
Florida’s defense – quick, physical and aggressive – gave the Zags fits in the first half. Gonzaga had 11 turnovers that led directly to nine Florida points.
Few mentioned the offense to Katz as he walked off the court, crediting Florida and saying the Gators “got up into us and we didn’t handle it well.” That came on the heels of answering “bad” when asked how the Zags had played in the opening half.
The Gonzaga first-half turnovers were at times careless, at times due to some selfish play and, at times, due to less than optimal court spacing.
Very little of which appeared in the second half.
The Zags doubled their assist total after halftime (from four to eight). They shot 17 percentage points better from the field (43 to 60 percent). And they outscored Florida 45-35.
That second number had to make Few happy as well. In the halftime interview, Katz asked him about the Gators’ dribble penetration and Few mentioned his team wasn’t getting to the right spots. He also said it could be fixed.
After intermission, the Bulldogs got into the gaps, took away penetration and forced the Gators into jump shots, not their forte. Florida, which dropped its first game after five wins, shot 34 percent in the second half, including just 1 of 11 from beyond the arc.
Yet there was another form of adversity that might have had Gonzaga fans screaming from Coeur d’Alene to Airway Heights – and no, it wasn’t the more than 40-minute late start.
Playing 115 miles from the Gators’ campus, the Zags had three players foul out, shot 10 less free throws and seemed to get the poor end of every 50/50 call.
One of those who fouled out, Nigel Williams-Goss, was called for a first-half offensive foul on fastbreak layup that had even Vitale, who has always seemed to go out of his way to not question calls, wondering what referee Olandis Poole had seen.
And Williams-Goss’ fifth foul came late, as the transfer guard made sure to keep his distance with his arms straight up on a drive. Still referee Raymie Styons sent Kasey Hill to the free throw line and Williams-Goss to the bench.
There was just 17 seconds left, the Zags led by six and Vitale kept repeating, “you can’t foul there.” Of course you can’t. And Williams-Goss tried not to.
Still he, Przemek Karnowski and Killian Tillie all were disqualified while Silas Melson and Zach Collins finished with three. Florida did not lose anyone.
As Vitale pointed out more than once, one of the strengths of this Gonzaga team is its depth. It showed inside where GU won the rebound battle by four despite no one getting more than six. And it showed outside with Josh Perkins, Williams-Goss and Melson all scoring in double figures.
Gonzaga improved to 8-0 in this tournament and its earlier incarnations. And have a chance for its third title in three tries when it faces Iowa State on Sunday.
Which brings up another problem.
The title game is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. PST on ESPN. That puts it in direct conflict with NFL games, but not the Seahawks’ game, which doesn’t start until 1:05.
After all the adversity Friday presented, a conflict of that sort wouldn’t be appreciated.
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