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Gonzaga Basketball

Analysis: Gonzaga outplays, then outlasts No. 15 Arizona, 84-80

Gonzaga guard Admon Gilder drives around Arizona guard Jemarl Baker Jr. in the first half Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / AP)

TUCSON, Arizona – Gonzaga did everything it needed to do to savor an impressive road win over a quality team in a difficult road environment.

The sixth-ranked Zags played some of their best basketball of the season in the second half, building a 16-point lead with 2:12 remaining over No. 15 Arizona.

Self-inflicted mistakes in the form of turnovers and errant free-throw shooting – the latter a season-long issue – turned a comfortable victory into an edge-of-your-seat finish.

Gonzaga held on 84-80 in front of 14,644 Saturday at the McKale Center, registering its second big road win over a Pac-12 Conference title contender in a week, following its 83-76 victory over Washington last Sunday.

The bottom line far outweighed the messy closing minutes.

“You get a win in this building against that team in this kind of environment, it’s special,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “I don’t think there are many teams in America that could come in here and beat these guys. They’re really, really good.”

The Zags did it at both ends of the court. After a slow offensive start, Gonzaga hit 47.5% from the field. Four players reached double figures, led by Corey Kispert’s 18 points. Three others scored at least seven points.

Gonzaga got worked over on the offensive boards in the first half, but it cleaned that up for the most part in the closing half. The Zags limited Arizona to 38.5% percent shooting, even with the Wildcats’ pouring in 15 points in the final 1:26.

Senior guard Ryan Woolridge clamped down on Arizona freshman guard Nico Mannion, limiting the probable lottery pick to seven points on 3-of-20 shooting. Mannion missed his first nine 3-point attempts.

“Ryan’s spectacular,” Few said. “He’s been amazing. I haven’t had somebody that can guard like that at the point.”

Fans started hitting the exits after three-point plays by Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi gave Gonzaga an 81-65 lead. Arizona (10-2) stormed back, trimming the deficit to 82-80. Woolridge, a 51.7% free-throw shooter, calmly buried two foul shots with 1.7 seconds left to seal the victory.

“When you play that fouling game, it’s all about making free throws,” Kispert said. “When you don’t, it gives the other team a chance. Those guys took advantage and they made shots that they weren’t making most of the second half.”

Gonzaga (11-1) was revisited by the injury bug. Freshman forward Anton Watson’s left shoulder popped out of place a couple of times in the first half and he didn’t return. Watson initially suffered a left shoulder subluxation against Texas A&M.

Senior forward Killian Tillie sprained his ankle late in the game. He said he’s hoping “to tough it out” and play against North Carolina on Wednesday.

The Zags trailed most of the first half because they couldn’t keep Arizona off the offensive glass. Freshman forward Zeke Nnaji had five of Arizona’s 12 offensive boards in the opening half. The extra possessions led to 13 second-chance points.

Gonzaga settled down on offense and got better looks as the half progressed and throughout the second half. The Zags pulled ahead 34-32 on Kispert’s 3-pointer. Woolridge’s free throw put GU up 35-34 at the half.

Gonzaga took the lead for good with a 12-0 run that gave them a 54-45 lead with 12:30 remaining. The Zags pushed the lead to 69-55 with a 15-6 spurt.

“We started off really slow,” said Petrusev, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots. “That was probably our worst 10 minutes of the year, but we picked it up and stayed with it.

“The second half, we came out and showed who the better team is, showed how we play. We played the right way and took the right shots.”