It took some effort to muster concerns against overmatched North Dakota State, but Gonzaga has experienced a few lulls following Thanksgiving week tournaments.
Reaching deep into the wayback machine, the Bison’s travel troubles – they didn’t arrive in Spokane until roughly noon Monday because of flight delays – brought to mind Portland State’s two-day, 10-hour bus trip before springing an upset over the Zags in 2008.
And for the first 10 minutes, the Zags looked like there was still some Maui sand in their shoes as NDSU grabbed a one-point lead in front of a subdued gathering of 6,000 at McCarthey Athletic Center.
That only seemed to spark Gonzaga as the defense buckled down, the offense went wild and any pre-game worries were erased with a lightning-quick 19-0 run that turned into a 35-6 spree.
Gonzaga celebrated its return to the No. 1 ranking in the polls by trampling the Bison 102-60 in its final tune-up before facing the most difficult stretch of its schedule.
The Zags’ next four games are against Creighton, Washington, No. 6 Tennessee and No. 11 North Carolina. The first and last are road games, sandwiched around the Huskies’ visit and a neutral-court matchup with Tennessee in Phoenix.
“As a competitor, you lock in for every game,” said wing Zach Norvell Jr., who contributed four of GU’s 15 3-pointers, one shy of the McCarthey Athletic Center record. “Us being No. 1, it’s going to be their biggest game. You can’t really look at them or their schedule or their wins and losses. You have to take care of your job.”
Gonzaga’s biggest concern, of course, is facing that difficult three-week stretch without senior guard Geno Crandall, who suffered a fractured right hand in practice Sunday and will be sidelined for 4 to 6 weeks. That’s on top of Killian Tillie’s absence for roughly four more weeks following preseason ankle surgery.
The Zags provided a peek at how they might operate minus Crandall as senior point guard Josh Perkins played the first 14 minutes before reserve guard Greg Foster Jr. made his first appearance. The blowout allowed Foster to log 20 minutes and reserve wing Joel Ayayi played 12 minutes.
Gonzaga (7-0) scheduled the Bison (2-5) knowing it would be returning home after three high-level games in Maui.
“Coach (Mark) Few called this the Geno game because his (North Dakota) team came in last year and gave us a really good run when we were fresh off Thanksgiving in Portland,” said wing Corey Kispert, who had five 3-pointers and 17 points. “We started off a little slow but our approach never wavered. We were going to keep the gas pedal down the whole game.”
The North Dakota game was roughly three weeks after the PK80 but Few’s point obviously hit home with the players.
The Zags’ defense was shaky early, but they stuck with their plan, switching on screens, and eventually shut down penetration and perimeter shooters.
North Dakota State forward Rocky Kreuser entered averaging a team-leading 11.5 points with 48 percent accuracy on 3-pointers. He left without scoring and missed all three of his shot attempts. Only one of those was behind the arc.
“We just switched on him,” Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke said. “It made it hard for him to get open 3s and made it easier to guard him.”
NDSU made just 4 of 27 3-pointers and its early shooting success faded to 35.4 percent by game’s end.
“Mission accomplished,” Few said. “We kind of got the Maui travel and everything out of our system. We did a good job of guarding the 3-point line against a team that can really shoot it and score it from there.”
The Zags shot it and scored it from distance and close range. Kispert knocked down three 3s in a 60-second span as Gonzaga’s lead reached 40 points with 11:50 remaining.
Clarke made all nine of his field-goal attempts. Six players reached double figures as the Zags shot 64 percent, 72.4 percent in the opening half.
“We want to avoid letdown games,” said Perkins, who had six of Gonzaga’s 25 assists. “We took them real serious, and it showed on the scoreboard.”
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