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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr. again shows he’s a forward thinker

Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. drives inside as BYU’s TJ Haws (30) defends during the first half Saturday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr.’s Saturday night wasn’t going as planned.

He missed his first seven shots, including five from beyond the 3-point arc. There was no reprieve for Norvell at the defensive end as a couple of critical lapses contributed to BYU’s second-half comeback.

So guess who made the biggest offensive and defensive plays in the final minutes of the Zags’ gritty 68-60 victory? That would be Norvell, the redshirt freshman from Chicago whose confidence runs deep enough to override his short-term memory.

Tied at 59, Norvell took a pass from Josh Perkins near the top of the key, faced-up and buried a 3-pointer over 6-foot-5 Cougars wing Elijah Bryant with 2:19 remaining. The triple came shortly after BYU’s TJ Haws hung a three-point play and a 3-pointer on Norvell.

“It’s just on to the next shot,” Norvell said matter-of-factly. “I was kind of upset with myself on a lot of defensive possessions down the stretch. I didn’t sit down and get any stops to help my team. It’s just (move on to the) next shot, confidence and being able to make the next shot was big.”

Nearly as big was Norvell poking the ball loose from Haws in the final minute with Gonzaga protecting a 64-60 lead. Rui Hachimura’s two free throws sealed the victory.

“He’s got an amazing … ,” began coach Mark Few, who concluded the sentence with “very short memory, which for us is probably a really good thing. He was not very good for stretches of that game, even though he had some nice drives.

“I was just telling him in the locker room I don’t know if I’ve had a guy like him that can miss, miss, miss, and he gave Haws that 3 … He’s lucky he has a forgiving coach. Let’s not forget that, too.”

Norvell certainly hasn’t.

“It can get a little better if I can get some stops at the end,” Norvell smiled. “He’ll like that a lot more.”

Norvell has built up trust from the coaching staff in part because he’s tough-minded and he’s hit more high-pressure shots than anyone else on the team.

Gonzaga was hanging on to a 58-54 lead over San Diego on Thursday when Norvell grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled down the court and canned a 25-footer with 24 seconds left on the shot clock and 3:10 on the game clock.

“I would have liked to have seen a drive, we were in the bonus and need to take advantage of that, but he has a lot of confidence in himself and he has a knack for making big shots,” Few said. “The better he will be when he starts combining that (3) with his drives and learning how to probe and use the free-throw line, too.”

Norvell tacked on another dagger 3 to close out the Toreros with 37 seconds left.

“I’m a tough guy,” Norvell said. “I’m not going to really dwell on the past. There are so many possessions in a game you have to be on to the next one.”

That’s not as simple as it sounds.

“Kyle (Wiltjer) was like that,” said senior forward Johnathan Williams, when asked if he’s played with anyone with a mindset similar to Norvell’s. “He’d miss two or three in a row and shoot with the same amount of confidence. Zach actually played defense down the stretch, he’s the one that got that steal (on Haws). He did a great job. I’m proud of the young guys. They really stepped up and played.”