Gonzaga has been involved in three of the best games in college basketball with the season barely past the midpoint.
Don’t let the final score fool you: Gonzaga 96, San Francisco 83. It won’t go down alongside those classics against the Blue Devils and Volunteers, but that’s only because the Dons don’t carry a national ranking and because the Zags’ execution in the final minutes was nearly flawless, turning a nailbiter into a 13-point win that was much closer for 39 minutes.
No. 5 Gonzaga closed with a 17-2 run in the final 3 minutes, 40 seconds to outlast the feisty Dons in a tight, tense, physical battle viewed by a boisterous crowd well above the listed capacity of 3,005 Saturday at War Memorial Gym.
“It was about as good as it could be,” Zags coach Mark Few said of his team’s execution down the stretch.
The Zags (16-2, 3-0 West Coast Conference) needed it against the Dons, who trailed most of the way but fought back to take their first lead, 75-74, since holding a 12-9 edge early in the first half.
Gonzaga tied it at 81 when Brandon Clarke, who torched the Dons with 24 points and nine rebounds, scored in the lane. Zach Norvell Jr., 0 of 6 from the field in the second half, nailed a 3-pointer. Geno Crandall, 2 of 17 on 3s this season, drilled a 3 on the next possession.
“After (Josh) Perkins got us going, my 3, Geno’s 3, that’s the confidence we have in one another and in ourselves,” Norvell said.
At the other end, San Francisco’s offense dried up. The Dons (14-3, 2-1) made just one of their last nine attempts in the final 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga hit its last six shots and nine of its final 10. The Zags had just two empty possessions, a rare Perkins miss in the lane and Crandall misfired on two free throws, in the final 5:50.
“That’s how you want to finish a game,” Crandall said. “We had to put our hard hats on and just lock in. Tough environment, road games are always tough, but we stayed together.”
Perkins took the game over for a stretch, hitting a couple of floaters and a 3-pointer as the lead switched hands near the 5-minute mark. His teammates joined in to take the Zags to the finish line.
“When his competitive spirit gets going and directed in the right way, I thought he was phenomenal down the stretch,” Few said of Perkins. “He guarded good, made shot after shot after shot.”
Gonzaga celebrated with what has become something of a tradition after winning at USF: The Zags loaded up at In-N-Out Burger before flying back to Spokane.
“The exclamation point,” said Perkins, who scored all 16 of his points in the second half. “We’ve been talking about that for a couple days.”
USF showed early on it wasn’t intimated by the Zags. Seven-foot center Jimbo Lull had a couple of putbacks and a jump hook as San Francisco led 8-4. Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie, in just his third game back following ankle surgery, checked in and promptly hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 12.
Lull picked up his second foul, reaching in after Rui Hachimura had swatted Charles Minlend’s shot at the rim. Lull spent the rest of the half on the bench, and Gonzaga took advantage, temporarily, as a pair of Norvell 3-pointers boosted the lead to 24-16.
Tillie’s tip-in and Hachimura’s short jumper put GU on top 31-21 with 6:45 left, but the Zags cooled off for the remainder of the half.
San Francisco scored the next seven points, including Frankie Ferrari’s first field goal, a jumper with 4:40 left. The Zags made just two field goals and a pair of free throws over the final 6:30 while the Dons hit their last four shot attempts, two by Ferrari.
Ferrari’s tough, pull-up from 8 feet just before the buzzer tied it 37 at the half.
Hachimura finished with 21 points. Tillie scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half. Norvell added 13 points. Ferrari scored a season-high 21 points and five other Dons reached double figures.
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