SAN DIEGO – Gonzaga’s defense kept giving the Zags a chance. Their offense kept failing to take advantage.
By the time Gonzaga started finding the range in the closing minutes, it was essentially too late and an opportunity for a quality road win evaporated in front of a noisy, full house of 12,414 Thursday at Viejas Arena.
No. 12 Gonzaga turned it over too much, sputtered too much in its half-court offense and dropped a 72-70 decision to San Diego State, ending the Zags’ run of consecutive road wins at 12.
“It was a defensive battle for a long time,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “We had a hard time finding baskets in a consistent manner. I don’t think we were very tough and again, it was another first half where we shot one free throw.
“The second half we got plenty of stops. We just needed to find some baskets and we couldn’t.”
The Zags (10-3) did find momentum-stalling turnovers, lots of them. It’s been an on-going problem for GU, which had nine turnovers and just 10 field goals in the opening half. They finished with 16 turnovers, including six by point guard Josh Perkins and four by forward Killian Tillie.
San Diego State (8-3) cashed in with a 14-8 edge in points off turnovers. That might not sound like much, but it added up in a defensive-minded contest that was tightly contested over the final 27 minutes.
“We’ve just got guys that can’t quite figure that out, and it’s our veterans,” Few said of the turnovers. “And until they want to figure that out and put a little governor on some of their passes and decisions, it’s going to continue to hurt us.”
Gonzaga never led. In fact, the Zags were never tied after SDSU’s Matt Mitchell opened the scoring with a 3-pointer.
San Diego State was the team expected to encounter rust coming off a 12-day break. Instead it was Gonzaga, which fell into an 11-0 hole before the game was 4 minutes old. The Aztecs hit 3-pointers on three straight possessions while the Zags were playing giveaway at the other end, committing three quick turnovers.
“Just beating ourselves up,” senior guard Silas Melson said. “Trying to hit home runs instead of singles. If you try to come out and hit home runs, you might find yourself down 11-0 in the first few minutes. Just the way basketball works. We have to hit the singles first before we throw full-court passes and what-not.”
Gonzaga seemed to find its footing, pulling with 14-10 on a pair of baskets by Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr., but the offense took another nap, with Rui Hachimura’s three-point play the only production over a 6-minute stretch.
Jalen McDaniels yanked an offensive rebound away from Tillie for a putback layup and the Zags trailed 24-13. Considering how their offense was executing, that felt like a sizable deficit.
Instead, Gonzaga nearly caught up by halftime. Norvell made a layup after an Aztecs turnover. Johnathan Williams and Tillie connected on 3s and suddenly SDSU’s lead was just 24-21.
Perkins had a chance to give the Zags the lead but his 3-pointer rattled in and out, leaving GU down 25-23 at half.
Gonzaga was within one four times early in the second half but couldn’t connect on several shot attempts to take the lead.
Melson made a couple of big buckets late and Hachimura and Norvell, who had 16 of his 22 points with another strong second-half performance, kept Gonzaga on SDSU’s heels. Hachimura scored eight of his 13 points in the second half.
The Aztecs had an answer and it often came from the redshirt freshman McDaniels, who had a season-high 15 points, and senior guard Trey Kell, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the final 3 minutes.
“Their length bothered us and I thought McDaniels made some big plays,” Few said. “At the end they were just a lot smarter than us. Kell shot nothing but free throws.”
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