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Gonzaga rewind: Zags buckle down on defense, ready for much-needed holiday break

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 22, 2018, 5:52 p.m.

There’s a pretty good chance Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins was on the same flight as the Denver Pioneers early Saturday morning, hours after the Zags administered a 101-40 beatdown.

A tad awkward?

“Could be, but let’s hope not,” said Perkins, who was heading home to Denver for Christmas. “Life is bigger than basketball.”

The eighth-ranked Zags (11-2) were all about the basketball Friday night. They continued making strides on defense and now they’re enjoying a respite before gathering for practice Wednesday.

Defense doesn’t rest

The Zags were sharp on both sides of the ball, but they’ve been working particularly hard on the defensive end. Consecutive losses recently to Tennessee and North Carolina exposed Gonzaga’s defensive issues.

The caliber of competition wasn’t nearly the same as those top-10 teams, but the Zags blanketed UT Arlington and Denver, giving up an average of 47.5 points. The Mavericks shot 26.8 percent from the field while the Pioneers made just 24.6.

The foes combined to make just 10 of 52 3-pointers. The Vols and Tar Heels combined for 25 3-pointers.

“I really liked our attention to detail, it’s been lacking a little bit,” coach Mark Few said. “We’ve been across the board having breakdowns, whether it was going under on a screen or miscommunicating on a switch like the end of the Tennessee game or playing dead behind in the post.

“We didn’t have that (against Denver). Hopefully, we can capture that and keep it going.”

Few called Gonzaga’s ball pressure its best of the season. The Pioneers had problems scoring at all three levels – in the lane, midrange and beyond the arc. Post players and penetrating guards had little success near the rim. Denver had impressive 3-point stats in its first 13 games but made just 1 of 9 from distance in each half.

Denver’s Ade Murkey, Joe Rosga and Ronnie Harriell Jr. – all 40-plus percentage shooters – combined to make 1 of 8 3-pointers. The trio came in averaging 38.4 points but managed just 17 against Gonzaga’s defense.

“Defensively, at the start of the season we were doing really good,” forward Brandon Clarke said. “We kind of had a little lapse. If feels good to have these two games that shows we can do it still.”

Pause in the action

Junior forward Rui Hachimura hasn’t had many breaks from basketball after two busy seasons with the Zags and numerous off-season stints as a key player on Japanese national teams.

Hachimura logged 30-plus minutes in eight of nine games before matching 26-minute efforts against UT Arlington and Denver. He’s averaging 30.3 minutes.

“Maybe a couple of hours,” said Hachimura, when asked how much he needed a break. Back in the gym Saturday? “For sure,” he said.

The coaching staff has tried to rest Hachimura and several others logging major minutes, but it has been a challenge with a short-handed roster facing a string of important games.

“We gotta restart and regenerate the batteries,” Few said. “Our emotional batteries are low, our physical batteries are low. Don’t forget we have two (Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall) of our top six or seven out so it’s not just what you guys see, it’s the practice reps that make it hard.

“It’s hard to be up emotionally for all these games we’ve had … it’s very hard to hit that peak emotionally sometimes. A guy like Rui really needs to rest. He’s been going all summer and into the fall, giving us his all. After (Christmas break), it’s pretty much a push to the end.”

Hachimura and Clarke were nearly unstoppable against the Pioneers. They combined for 46 points, 19-of-21 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals.

“They got back to being bouncy and athletic,” Few said. “Rui was getting worn down and didn’t quite have the bounce the last couple games. It was good to see him back attacking basket with some pop. Brandon has been doing that all year.”

The time off should re-energize the roster.

“With the early part of the season, we got kind of tired. You could tell a little bit,” sophomore wing Zach Norvell Jr. said. “But a break like this is what we need. Get our feet up, rest up, refresh our minds and getting back with family is big-time for us.”

View from the opposing bench

Denver battled then No. 11 Kansas State before falling 64-56 on Nov. 12.

The Wildcats and Zags have different approaches, Pioneers coach Rodney Billups said.

“Kansas State was more physical and they tried to play at the basket every possession,” Billups said. “GU is a little more skilled and plays with finesse and they shoot a lot of 3s. Both teams are really good and both will play late into March.”

Denver struggled to score against the Wildcats (56 points, 36-percent shooting) and the Zags.

“I don’t know that they were more aggressive (on defense) than what we saw on film, especially the UT Arlington game,” Billups said. “But they weren’t more physical than Kansas State. Kansas State was really aggressive and they did what they wanted when they wanted to do it.”

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