Gonzaga’s first test of the young season arrived in the form of a Utah State team that made everything it looked at in the first half.
That’s not entirely true. The Aggies did miss, but they usually just gathered the rebound and converted. If not for a slow stretch to close the half, Utah State might have reached 50 points.
There will be many more challenges ahead, beginning with the PK80 next week, but the 17th-ranked Zags offered an impressive response to their first bout with adversity.
Gonzaga leaned on sophomore Killian Tillie, a couple of freshmen and a decisive 17-0 burst to dig out a 79-66 victory in front of a packed house of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“Games like that are what we need,” said senior guard Silas Melson, who chipped in 12 points, three assists and three steals. “Especially in November, to hit adversity is what you want as a player, coaches and a program.
“The way you beat that is the way you carry yourself for the whole year.”
If that’s the case, Gonzaga’s future will certainly be bright. However, a repeat effort of the Zags’ first half against some of their upcoming competition will probably result in a different outcome.
Utah State (2-2), despite the absence of its best player Koby McEwen (ankle), carved up Gonzaga’s defense in the opening half.
The Aggies came out on fire and only slowed down in the final five minutes. They led by as many as eight as six different players hit from beyond the 3-point line. Gonzaga (3-0) often lost track of shooters with slow close-outs or by going under screens. The Aggies created space for shooters on pick-and-rolls.
On one play, two Zags covered the ball-handler 23 feet from the hoop and left Brock Miller wide open for a corner 3. Making matters worse, the Aggies snatched eight offensive boards leading to 15 second-chance points.
“They came right at us,” said Tillie, who had 20 points and nine rebounds. “We didn’t come into the game with a lot of intensity and we didn’t guard them right.”
They did in the second half. They actually got a head start in the final five minutes of the first half.
Tillie and Jeremy Jones had steals that led to run-out baskets and Josh Perkins buried a corner 3-pointer as GU pulled even at 42. Melson’s 3 from the top of the key sent Gonzaga into half with a 45-42 lead.
The Zags’ lead was just 60-57 before they ripped off 17 unanswered points. Utah State burned a timeout to try to slow the Zags’ momentum only to see them tack on 12 points in a row.
“We were switching our pick-and-roll coverages in the first half,” coach Mark Few said, “but it didn’t’ matter what we did. It was more of an intensity, alertness and toughness deal.”
Enter freshman wing Corey Kispert, who, like most of his teammates, had a forgettable opening half. He opened the second by tracking down his own miss and scoring and quickly added another putback basket.
“He physically got us going with some tough-guy efforts on the glass,” Few said.
Other Zags joined in but the Aggies were still within three after Sam Merrill’s three-point play midway through the second half. Tillie, GU’s most reliable offensive weapon throughout, started the 17-0 spurt with a putback and Melson chipped in five points.
Freshman center Jacob Larsen rejected three shots as Gonzaga’s zone kept the Aggies scoreless for nearly six minutes.
Kispert’s nifty left-hand finish in the paint gave the Zags’ their first double-digit lead against the tiring Aggies. He added a pair of free throws as the margin swelled to 20.
“Seeing the shot not falling like it usually does from the outside, Coach Few preached the whole week about rebounding and killer instinct,” said Kispert, who had 12 points and nine boards. “Once our team started getting inside and getting rebounds, we stopped beating ourselves and took it to a Utah State team that really came to play.”
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