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Gonzaga’s defense has work to do following tough stretch

Washington’s Sam Timmins is surrounded by Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams (left), Silas Melson (0) and Rui Hachimura in a Dec. 10 game. (ELAINE THOMPSON / AP)

Gonzaga’s impressive 64-game streak of holding opponents to less than 50-percent shooting from the field ended against Villanova in Madison Square Garden.

It wasn’t a major surprise that it happened against the highly efficient Wildcats, who shot 51.7 percent in an 88-72 win earlier this month.

It’s what happened just before and just after that has raised some eyebrows about Gonzaga’s defense.

Creighton, another potent offense, came close (48.3 percent) against Gonzaga four days before the Zags faced Villanova. After GU-Villanova, Washington checked in at 47.3 percent and North Dakota matched the Wildcats by making 51.7 percent in a near-upset of the Zags.

IUPUI managed just 39.1 percent Monday, but the Jaguars had a lengthy stretch in the second half with inside basket after inside basket, when they weren’t getting to the free-throw line.

“The second half was a little bit weird,” GU sophomore forward Killian Tillie said. “We didn’t do a good job on ball-screen coverage, on bigs, too. We’re going to have to work on it.”

Gonzaga has yielded four of its five highest field-goal percentages of the season in the last five games. Florida cracked the top five by shooting 45.8 percent, but a lot of the Gators’ damage came via 17 3-pointers.

The Zags of late have had trouble stopping inside baskets and 3-pointers. Dribble penetration has been an issue, underscored by Villanova’s bevy of ballhandlers, Creighton’s talented backcourt and North Dakota’s Cortez Seales and Geno Crandall. The 3-point arc was good to Creighton (48 percent), Villanova (47.6), Washington (37) and North Dakota (39) against the Zags.

“The post defense and also the steer-and-roll defense,” said senior Johnathan Williams, when asked what needs to improve on defense. “We’re letting the guy get below us.”

Silas Melson rarely discusses defense without combining the words “team” and “defense.” The senior guard believes it takes five working in unison to play quality defense.

“Realistically, there are great defenders but people are going to get beat eventually, so there has to be another guy to help them out,” Melson said. “That’s probably one of the biggest areas (team defense) we can get better. We can all get on the same page.”

Ball-screen coverage is high on the priority list.

“That goes a lot to communication and staying tight with our game plan,” Melson said. “You have to talk through it, you shouldn’t have to in the first place, but it all goes hand-in-hand.”

Gonzaga’s record-setting defense last year was anchored inside by 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and a tough perimeter led by Nigel Williams-Goss and Melson. Guards could hound opponents on the 3-point arc knowing the paint was usually well protected.

The current Zags don’t possess the same size or rim protection. GU blocked 4.7 shots per game last season compared to 2.9 this year.

Zags opponents made 36.5 percent from the field, 29 percent on 3-pointers and scored 61.5 points per game last season. The totals this season: 42 percent, 38 percent and 74.9 points, the latter a bit skewed by four overtimes. Opponents are also getting more opportunities, with GU averaging nearly 2.5 more turnovers per game than in 2017.

“All year, not even just that second half (vs. IUPUI), we’ve been trying to clean up our defense,” Melson said. “That is one thing we are going to clean up. It’s something we have to buy in to and pay extra attention to all the details.”