SAN DIEGO – Rim protection and Rui.
It takes some searching, but those were two bright spots from an otherwise gloomy Thursday evening for No. 12 Gonzaga, which was outplayed in a 72-70 loss to San Diego State at Viejas Arena.
The Zags came up with a season-high 10 blocks between their man-to-man defense, which played a role in digging an 11-0 hole at the outset, and their zone, which spurred a rally late in the first half.
Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie each swatted four shots. Jacob Larsen and Rui Hachimura both rejected one shot. Larsen gathered the ball after blocking Jalen McDaniels’ shot. Hachimura sent Devin Watson’s shot into orbit with 4 minutes left, but McDaniels retrieved the ball and it led to a pair of free throws for the redshirt freshman forward.
“Coach (Mark Few) talked about that a lot,” said guard Zach Norvell Jr., who had 10 of his 22 points in the final 6 minutes. “Our bigs did a really good job of protecting the rim. We have to come up with some of those 50-50 balls and try to help when our offense isn’t going as smoothly.”
GU recorded its most blocks since swatting 10 against Saint Mary’s in 2014. The Zags’ season high had been six. Last year’s squad, perhaps the best in program history at protecting the paint, had nine blocks twice.
The Zags’ defensive effort improved from their previous five games. They limited San Diego State to 36.3-percent shooting, but they couldn’t keep the Aztecs off the free-throw line. The Aztecs opted to milk the clock in the last 5 minutes, leading to several disjointed possessions, but they were bailed out on a few occasions by GU fouls.
“We had good defense,” Hachimura said. “There were like bad calls or we just fouled them, give them the free throws.”
Gonzaga’s zone, which stymied SDSU in a 69-48 win last season, wasn’t quite as effective in the closing half. Norvell said the Zags lost track of the high post at times and paid for it when McDaniels and Malik Pope converted 15-foot jumpers.
Still, Few said, “Our DER (defensive efficiency rating) in both halves was good enough to win. It was an offensive problem most of the night.”
That boiled down to turnovers, as it has most of the season when GU’s offense sputters. The starting guards committed 10 of the 16 turnovers, including six by point guard Josh Perkins. Killian Tillie was whistled for two illegal screens among his four turnovers.
Despite the miscues and a rugged 10-minute offensive stretch in the second half Few labeled as “fairly inept,” the Zags still had a chance to catch the Aztecs.
Aside from two late buckets by Melson and seven assists from Perkins, the Zags didn’t get much production from their fourth-year guards.
“That’s just all on, not all, but a lot on leadership,” Melson said. “We’ve been playing backcourt long enough to know that when we’re down one and been down all game, possessions matter so much more.
“We’ve been kind of good at it all year but over the course of this game in particular we kind of took those possessions for granted.”
Hachimura made the most of his 19 minutes. He had 13 points, five boards and an assist.
“Of all our inside guys he gave us a good physical presence so we could do some high-lows,” Few said.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Hachimura scored on layups or drew fouls against smaller Atzecs. He was 5 of 5 at the free-throw line.
“They went small a lot, so we had an advantage,” Few said. “We tried to expose that with Tillie and didn’t get very far. Rui did a nice job of giving us some buckets and an inside-outside attack.”
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