After sailing through two early quizzes, Gonzaga was expecting its first test Saturday night at the McCarthey Center.
Utah State certainly supplied it.
For about 30 minutes.
Then 17 unanswered points put the Aggies away. As a result, the 17th-ranked Bulldogs improved to 3-0 with a 79-66 win before another sellout crowd of 6,000.
So what changed in a game that Utah State (2-2) controlled early, trailed by just three at the half and was within three with 10 minutes remaining?
A couple of major things, both pointed out quickly and efficiently – like Gonzaga’s offense in the stretch – by color analysts Richard Fox and Dan Dickau on KHQ’s broadcast.
What they saw …
As Utah State rained 3-pointers in the opening half, as well as winning the rebound battle, Fox summarized why the Aggies were leading by as many as eight early.
“When a shot goes up,” he said, “they are not done competing.”
And that competitive nature led to a 20-16 rebounding edge – despite Gonzaga’s superior size – and contributed to 8-of-17 shooting from beyond the arc, most coming after crisp passes and good ball movement.
Despite that, the Bulldogs (3-0) were up 45-42 when Brian Michelson stepped up for his halftime interview. The subject was USU’s 3-point shooting and the rebounding.
As Fox joked as halftime ran down, he was pretty sure the GU staff was asking its players to play a bit more physical in the second half.
They must have, because the next few minutes were a brawl.
“This thing has gotten really physical,” play-by-play man Greg Heister said. To which Fox added, “You can’t expect a whistle.”
Still, when USU called timeout with 9 minutes, 14 seconds left, the Aggies were still thinking upset, trailing by just eight. But when they returned to the court, Gonzaga was different.
The Zags made a defense change, switching to a matchup zone, which allowed them to stretch to shooters and take away Utah State’s outside looks.
And Jacob Larsen, who picked up two quick first half fouls, planted himself under the basket.
The zone took away the Aggies’ offensive options and Larsen, all 6-foot-11 of him, took away the rim.
As Gonzaga pulled away with the 17-point run, Dickau, prompted by Heister, said of Larsen, “These last 2-to-3 minutes, he’s made an impact.”
Fox went a bit further, saying “Jacob Larsen has been the difference.”
What we saw …
Dickau and Fox had it right, even if Larsen’s numbers – two points and three rebounds in just 7 minutes – don’t seem impressive. But he also had three blocks and a couple of shot alterations, all within the game-turning stretch.
His presence inside allowed the Zag defense to extend, taking away for a crucial time Utah State’s No. 1 weapon, the 3-pointer. The Aggies scored exactly half their points from deep, but only had two attempts from there in the decisive stretch.
Before then, both Fox and Dickau took turns explaining why Gonzaga’s offense was struggling for the first time this season, not sugar-coating the Zags’ occasional out-of-character selfishness.
They also didn’t underplay the importance of Johnathan Williams’ foul-limited minutes or Josh Perkins’ off-shooting night.
But they didn’t miss the key contributions of Silas Melson either, who hit three crucial jumpers when GU’s offense was stagnating.
“When GU’s needed a bucket tonight, it’s been Silas Melson who has stepped up,” Dickau said when Melson nailed a 3-pointer that jumpstarted the run. “Absolutely,” Fox answered.
After the win was secured, Fox spent some time with Killian Tillie, who led the Zags with 20 points and nine rebounds. The questions turned toward how this game helps the Zags with their next exam, which comes Thanksgiving in the PK80 tournament in Portland against Ohio State.
“It feels good to be tested,” Tillie said. “Now we are ready to face those big teams.”
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