Gonzaga was expecting a stout challenge from Texas A&M, nicely timed before the loaded eight-team Maui Invitational begins a three-day run Monday.
The short-handed Aggies complied, for most of the first half.
The third-ranked Zags created some separation late in the first half and controlled the second for a 94-71 victory in front of a packed house of 6,000 Thursday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Gonzaga (3-0) posted its third double-digit win, but this was its toughest test of the young season, despite the lopsided final score. GU thrashed Idaho State and Texas Southern by a combined 78 points in its first two games.
“We really had to dig deeper than the scored indicated,” GU coach Mark Few said. “We had to find another level than we’ve been at this year.”
The Aggies, playing without senior guard Admon Gilder, dropped to 1-2. Gilder, a team leader and their most experienced player, is out indefinitely for health reasons and didn’t make the trip, the school announced. Teammate Wendell Mitchell, a highly touted junior-college transfer guard, remains sidelined with tendinitis.
Still, Texas A&M battled Gonzaga on nearly even terms for the first 15 minutes. The Bulldogs never trailed in the first half, but they could never get away from the Aggies.
Most of that was because of the Aggies’ athleticism and length, which slowed the Zags’ potent offense at times in the first half. Some of that was on the Zags, who looked rushed at times and missed numerous open looks beyond the 3-point arc.
“They’re a big, athletic team and I think they showed their athleticism,” Few said. “In the second half we were able to get our defense set and we slowed down just enough on offense to get the ball to the right spot and take the right shot. I thought we took some hurried shots in the first half.”
Gonzaga started quickly with dunks by Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. Corey Kispert’s corner 3-pointer boosted the lead to 16-10. Texas A&M pulled even at 28 on TJ Starks’ layup.
Starks scored 14 first-half points on an assortment of hard drives into the lane. He finished over GU’s bigs on a couple of occasions, keeping the Aggies close.
The Zags took over the final 5 minutes of the half. Josh Perkins scored consecutive baskets and Hachimura added three points, the latter two on Perkins’ 500th career assist.
Zach Norvell Jr. ended the 3-point drought with two straight – the Zags were 4 of 15 from distance in the opening 20 minutes – giving GU a 41-31 lead. A pair of Starks free throws cut the margin to eight, but Hachimura answered with a tough 6-footer, restoring Gonzaga’s 10-point lead at half.
The Zags quickly extended their lead. They scored the first seven points of the second half, capped by Hachimura’s nifty left-handed baby hook.
After another driving layup by Starks, Gonzaga rattled off the next seven points to take a 57-37 advantage. Norvell snagged a loose ball near the baseline and converted a three-point play. Clarke’s steal and dunk capped a 14-4 burst to open the half.
Gonzaga went up by 21, but the Aggies had one more run in them, cutting the lead to 66-51 midway through the second half.
Just when it looked like it might get interesting, Geno Crandall had two straight layups, Clarke rejected his third shot of the night, Filip Petrusev made a pair of free throws and Crandall drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Perkins scored from close range and Gonzaga led by 26.
“We came out with energy in the second half and that affected us on the boards and blocking shots,” Clarke said.
Norvell hit four of the team’s seven 3-pointers and scored a game-high 22 points. Hachimura had 18 points and seven boards. Clarke had 14 points and 11 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double. He was one rebound shy of a double-double in the season opener. Crandall added 13 points and four assists, and Petrusev, a true freshman, finished with 10 points and six boards.
“When you have unselfish guys, we try to give up the good shot for the better shot, that’s big-time for us,” Norvell said.
The Zags never heated up beyond the 3-point line, but they dominated inside, with 48 points in the paint.
Savion Flagg led the Aggies with 18 points. Starks cooled off in the second half. He finished with 16 points, but was just 1 of 5 from the field in the second half. Texas A&M made just 41.5 percent of its shots.
The Zags open against Illinois at 8:30 p.m. Monday in Lahaina.
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