SAN FRANCISCO – The preliminaries are finally over.
For the first time in WCC play, Gonzaga was tested, not necessarily a white-knuckle, last-possession affair, but a challenge nonetheless from San Francisco in front of a packed house at War Memorial at the Sobrato Center.
The 15th-ranked Zags did just enough, largely because they have inside firepower and rim protection that the Dons are missing, to hold off San Francisco 75-65 Saturday in front of 4,022.
“I don’t think anybody expected anything easy,” GU coach Mark Few said. “We’re on the road and Kyle’s done a nice job with this club. We made enough plays to get the win, which is what this thing is all about.”
Rui Hachimura blocked two shots in the final 2-plus minutes and the Zags doubled USF in paint points (36-18).
The hard-fought victory sets up a battle for first between Gonzaga (16-3, 6-0 WCC) and Saint Mary’s (17-2, 6-0) on Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. The Gaels destroyed Pepperdine 91-67.
“Obviously it’s two of the top teams in league and it’s going to be much anticipated,” senior guard Silas Melson said. “But over the course of league play I think we’ve done a pretty good job just focusing on the next game.”
Saturday’s scrap with USF (10-9, 2-4) was a virtual repeat of Gonzaga’s last five trips to War Memorial Gym. After losing three straight from 2010-2012, the Zags have won by 10, 10, 11, eight in overtime and 15 last season.
How did GU grade out in crunch time when the Dons pulled within six on a couple of occasions?
“I wouldn’t call it good, but I wouldn’t call it bad by any means,” said Melson, who scored 14 points. “There are things we can do better. We turned the ball over once against the press, but we made some plays on the offensive end, got to free-throw line and got the ball to Johnathan.”
That would be Johnathan Williams, the senior forward who didn’t play in the second half of Thursday’s blowout against Portland after bumping knees with the Pilots’ JoJo Walker.
Williams wasn’t 100 percent but he was entirely effective, finishing with 17 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Add in Hachimura’s 10 points, eight boards and three blocks and the Zags dominated inside.
Good thing, because the Dons’ trio of guards – they were missing second-leading scorer Chase Foster (ankle) – gave Gonzaga fits. Souley Boum, Frankie Ferrari and Jordan Ratinho combined for 11 3-pointers and 56 points.
Ferrari scored 13 points in the first half to keep the Dons in the game. The sophomore guard’s favorite player growing up was former Zag great Adam Morrison, now an analyst on GU’s radio network.
“I noticed during warm-ups that he was broadcasting the game,” Ferrari said. “There are pictures of me dressed up as him in the newspaper. I didn’t get a chance to say hi to him but I thought it was pretty awesome playing in front of him.”
Gonzaga switched on screens most of the way before trying a zone defense about midway through the second half. It didn’t bother the three USF guards, who buried 8 of 13 beyond the arc in the second half with Ratinho’s’s back-to-back 3s cutting Gonzaga’s lead to 69-63.
“We just gave up way too many 3s in the second half,” Few said. “It’s counter intuitive. They’re driving in to throw back behind themselves out to the 3. In a day, (you have) to retrain you’re habits of what you’ve been doing all year.”
The Zags had one offensive lull late in the first half, but they found good looks inside and outside on most possessions. They were cruising along at 62-48 after Josh Perkins, who had 16 points, nailed a pull-up 3 from 24 feet with 9:45 remaining.
Shortly thereafter, USF went to a zone and the Zags, who have feasted on zones most of the season, sputtered. Throw in some turnovers and things got interesting in the closing minutes.
Hachimura’s blocks, Williams’ basket and 7-of-8 free-throw shooting carried Gonzaga to the finish line.
Hachimura adjusted after picking up a couple of foul calls. “I have to give (Dons guards) a little space,” he said, “and I feel like I have to fight in the air” to make up ground.
The Zags hadn’t been in a close game since falling 72-70 at San Diego State.
“We need to be put in that situation to show we can handle it because we didn’t handle it a couple times before,” Williams said. “I’m glad to pull out a win in a close game.”
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