When the two best college basketball programs in the West battle on a Saturday night in December, you would expect ESPN to put its best next to the court – and our living rooms.
In one way, the self-designated WorldWide Leader did. The ESPN2 crew included the networks’ most-knowledgeable analyst, Gonzaga Division, Sean Farnham.
And Farnham, who may know more about the Davenport Hotel than anyone not named Walt Worthy, hit all the right notes as Gonzaga survived a slow start, built a big lead and survived a furious Arizona comeback 84-80 in Tucson.
It is GU’s first win at McKale Center and earned the Zags the distinction of being only the second school to win a nonconference game there in the last 65.
What they saw …
• “If you turn it over against Gonzaga, that’s what happens,” Farnham told play-by-play voice Dave Feldman after an Arizona second-half turnover turned into a Corey Kispert layup and a nine-point GU lead.
The former UCLA player – he said McKale was his favorite road venue while in Westwood – knows the Zags’ offense, knows their strategy, knows what Mark Few wants and he isn’t shy about sharing.
The Zags fell behind by nine early but battled back and took control. What did Farnham say?
“That’s a testament to the toughness and resilience of Mark Few’s team.”
They share the ball and show balanced scoring again. What did Farnham say?
“It’s not one guy,” he said of GU’s scoring. “You can’t key on one guy … because they find different ways to score.”
He mentioned Admon Gilder, who has been struggling a bit, stepping up and hitting four 3-point shots.
Filip Petresuv (16), Corey Kispert (a team-high 18), Joel Ayayi (15), all scored in double figures and all earned praise from Farnham.
What we saw …
• The Zags (11-1) struggled in two defensive areas in the first half, though they shored one up before intermission. The other never got better.
Early on, 15th-ranked Arizona held a 9-1 edge on offensive boards. That led to a large edge in second-chance points – and, at one point, a nine-point lead. At that point, Petrusev had zero rebounds. He finished the half with five and the game with seven. Still, the more athletic Wildcats, led by freshman Zeke Nnaji’s 17 rebounds, held a 44-43 edge when the game ended.
By the way, the Bulldogs held their own on the boards despite playing a small lineup for much of the final few minutes before intermission.
The other issue for the sixth-ranked Zags was more a result of Arizona’s determination to attack the rim. Whenever Gonzaga would close out on shooters, the Wildcats (10-2) attacked. After halftime, the Bulldogs shortened their closeouts a bit and kept the Wildcats in front better – though it may have led to UA hitting 7 of 15 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes.
• That aggression might explain, in part, why Arizona made more free throws than Gonzaga shot in the first half. A lot more.
The other part might be explained in something Feldman said as the game came on. “You are watching the Pac-12 on ESPN,” he said.
With three officials who public identify with Arizona’s conference, David Hall, Greg Nixon and Deidre Carr.
It was the latter who seemed to struggle the most, especially when trying to determine the charge/block. The former University of Montana player twice called charges on GU players when replays showed Chase Jeter slid under both times. That’s life on the road.
The key matchup …
• Arizona freshman Nico Mannion is a pro in waiting. One good enough with the ball that there is no way the Zags were going to limit his production with just one player.
They didn’t even try. When Mannion attacked off the ball screen, Gonzaga was willing to give Ryan Woolridge help in many ways. The bigs showed, they switched when needed and always seemed to know where the point guard was.
It worked, to a degree. But a big part of their success against Mannion was his poor shooting.
He was 3-of-20 shooting. He missed his first nine 3-point attempts, though hit a big one down the stretch as Arizona went on a 13-1 run to draw close at the end and get Farnham and Feldman to backtrack on their Gonzaga coronation talk in the final seconds.
Mannion finished with seven points, 10 assists and three turnovers.
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