With about 13 minutes left in Gonzaga’s game Thursday night at San Diego State, CBS Sports Network analyst Steve Lappas described the contest perfectly.
“It’s not often Gonzaga has to win an ugly game,” the former Villanova coach said. “Tonight, if they are going to win, they are going to win an ugly game.”
It was ugly, all right. But 12th-ranked Gonzaga didn’t win, falling 72-70 to the Aztecs before 12,414 at Viejas Arena.
What they saw …
This was the Zags’ first game this season on CBS Sports Network, which broadcasts Mountain West (San Diego State’s conference) games. So it was the first time Gonzaga viewers heard Lappas and play-by-play announcer Carter Blackburn.
Lappas is no stranger to the Zags, however, as he’s done their games in the past. And he seemed well aware of Gonzaga’s strengths and weaknesses, even if he didn’t get off to the best start.
Sort of like the Bulldogs.
They fell behind 11-0 to begin the nonconference matchup – Gonzaga’s last before West Coast Conference play begins – and Lappas was lobbying for Mark Few to react.
“They need a timeout,” Lappas said in the middle of the Aztecs’ opening run. “I’m a little surprised. Mark Few knows his team much better than I do, but on the road like this, I think he needs to settle his team down.”
The Bulldogs settled themselves down, got some stops and made a game of it.
But neither Josh Perkins nor Silas Melson, the Zags’ starting backcourt, ever really settled down against the Aztecs’ man-to-man pressure.
Perkins was 1-of-7 from the floor with six of GU’s 16 turnovers. He also missed two free throws in the final minute.
“It’s a bad decision by Josh Perkins,” Lappas said after a second-half turnover. “Another one,” Blackburn responded. “He’s made a ton of bad decisions,” Lappas answered.
When Perkins turned the ball over with a little over a minute left and then fouled, Blackburn commiserated. “Josh Perkins’ long night in San Diego continues,” he said, a note of support in his voice.
Melson was also off, with a 3-of-12 shooting night and key free-throw miss late.
“Their experienced players, especially their guards, let them down,” is how Lappas saw it and it’s hard to argue.
But it’s not as if the Aztecs ran away with it. The Zags patiently waited for San Diego State to cool off after the Aztecs made four 3-pointers in the first six minutes.
Few played a bigger lineup, switched to zone and slowed the Aztecs’ dribble penetration. That forced tougher perimeter shots.
“The zone allows them to play bigger,” Lappas noticed. And he saw the effect it had. “(It) was extremely effective and changed the game.”
It’s too bad the folks in the CBS studios weren’t paying as much attention. During the halftime show, former coach Pete Gillen’s first comments about the 25-23 game praised San Diego State’s defense.
That was fine. In the first 20 minutes, the Aztecs held GU to 33 percent shooting and 2-for-12 beyond the arc. That’s good.
But nothing was said of Gonzaga’s opening-half defense. San Diego State shot 28 percent from the floor in the first half. It seems the Zags’ defense was pretty good – if not better – too.
And then, when asked what Gonzaga had to do to win, Gillen gave an excellent explanation of how the Bulldogs needed “to attack the zone.”
Problem was, San Diego State played man-to-man the entire game.
What we saw …
Part of Gonzaga’s trouble playing man-to-man defense was the Zags just couldn’t do it without fouling. Then again, they couldn’t do much without fouling.
For example, Killian Tillie struggled to stay on the court.
He picked up his first foul on an illegal screen call by Mountain West official Eric Curry, even though replays showed Tillie was planted and in perfect position.
And, in one of the key moments of the game, Zach Norvell had a chance to give Gonzaga a lead with 16 minutes left, but his drive to the basket was unsuccessful in part due to the uncalled contact. San Diego State rebounded and Devin Watson drove to the rim on the break.
Tillie planted himself outside the arc and took the blow. Curry called it a block and Watson’s three-point play extended the lead to four, 33-29.
“That was really close,” is how Lappas described the play before admitting it could have been called a charge.
The Zags, outscored by 10 from the free-throw line, would never lead.
Talk about an ugly game.
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