Practices have been a little different around Gonzaga this week.
With a shortage of healthy bodies, the Zags have been running shorter practices and working mostly in the half court.
Meanwhile, Joel Ayayi looks refreshed and soaks up more confidence with every game minute he plays. The sophomore guard moved into the starting lineup for the first time with senior Admon Gilder battling a balky knee. Ayayi responded by filling up the stat sheet again.
Ayayi delivered 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists and six other Zags reached double figures as No. 9 Gonzaga crushed Texas Southern 101-62 Wednesday in front of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Ayayi found out at Wednesday’s shootaround he was going to start.
“Coach said, ‘You’re going to start,’ ” Ayayi said. “I was like, ‘Cool.’ ”
His calm demeanor carried over to the floor, where Ayayi made a pair of 3-pointers, scored on the break and handed out five assists, sharing team-high honors with Ryan Woolridge. Ayayi’s nine rebounds paced the Zags to a 51-32 edge in that category.
“When I got here, I wasn’t that polished,” said Ayayi, who redshirted as a freshman. “But day by day, I just got better. For me, every game I get more comfortable. It was kind of like being a freshman the first couple games. I was a little shy. Now I feel way more comfortable and I’m able to play my game and be aggressive.”
Ayayi played a team-high 33 minutes and was on the floor late in the blowout because the Zags had no other options. Walk-on Will Graves was out with strep throat.
Freshman forward Anton Watson (ankle) missed his third straight game and he could be out for a while. Coach Mark Few said Watson is walking and out of a boot, but it sounds like he’s not close to returning.
Gilder logged 21-plus minutes and had 10 points, four rebounds and four assists.
“It just takes time,” Gilder said. “I just listen to the trainers. I’m older. so I know the things I need to do to help my knee and rest my body.”
Killian Tillie, who said his knee was “all right” after playing back-to-back games in the Bahamas and flying back home, scored 12 points and grabbed five boards in 16-plus minutes.
“He’s always been a playmaker,” Tillie said of fellow French native Ayayi. “He’s showing it a lot now and it’s great for the team.
“He got mad at me because every time he was passing me the ball I missed the 3, and then Ryan passed me the ball and I made the 3. We like to play together.”
The Zags (9-1) enter their toughest portion of their schedule – at No. 22 Washington on Sunday, at No. 12 Arizona on Dec. 14 and home vs. No. 7 North Carolina on Dec. 18 – but they have some space between games to help players heal up.
“Some guys don’t really need to practice 100 percent all the time,” Tillie said. “So we get a little rest sometimes and it really helps for the games.”
The Zags cruised against Texas Southern, leading by as many as 10 after 8 minutes. The margin was down to four when Gonzaga took off. A 26-6 run extended the Zags’ lead to 24 late in the first half.
Gonzaga found open looks most of the way and shot 54%. Texas Southern (2-6) had good looks early, but those dried up midway through the first half. The Zags tightened their defense, leading to TSU turnovers and missed shots that triggered GU’s transition game.
The Zags finished with 29 fastbreak points, 16 off turnovers and a whopping 68 points in the paint.
“Defense, a lot of easy baskets in transition, 2-on-0 breaks, 2-on-1 breaks,” Ayayi said. “I think the defense is really important for us this year. You just blink and we’re up 20. Defense was a major part.”
Ayayi played well on offense in Gonzaga’s three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but struggled at times on the defensive end. He wasn’t alone as the Zags gave up 82 points to hot-shooting Michigan in the championship game.
GU and Ayayi were sharper on defense against the Tigers in terms of assignments and following the game plan. The Tigers made 39.7% from the field and just 5 of 20 3-point attempts.
“A little bit sharper,” Tillie said. “Still some mistakes, giving them layups, but we did a better job.”
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