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Analysis: ‘Old Zags are back’ as Gonzaga dominates Fairleigh Dickinson at both ends of the court in NCAA Tournament opener

UPDATED: Thu., March 21, 2019

Gonzaga’s  Jeremy Jones  steals the ball from Fairleigh Dickinson’s  Darnell Edge during the second half  Thursday  in Salt Lake City. Gonzaga won 87-49. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Jeremy Jones steals the ball from Fairleigh Dickinson’s Darnell Edge during the second half Thursday in Salt Lake City. Gonzaga won 87-49. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SALT LAKE CITY – Fairleigh Dickinson’s leading scorer, Darnell Edge, drove into the lane, elevated for his first shot and discovered he no longer had the basketball.

The ball was stripped away and trickled out of bounds as the shot-clock buzzer sounded.

A few minutes later, Knights senior forward Mike Holloway Jr., who entered averaging 11.7 points in 127 career games, caught a pass on the low block and appeared to have an opening to the rim. He elected to dribble out to the middle of the lane, and his shot was rejected by Killian Tillie.

It was a different story at the other end, as Gonzaga’s smothering defense led to a flood of transition points. When the Zags did miss, they usually collected the rebound and capitalized.

There was no Saint Mary’s hangover, no sweating out a 1-vs.-16 seed opener the way the Zags experienced in 2013 against Southern. There was top-seeded Gonzaga’s 87-49 blowout Thursday that broke the school record for largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game, surpassing a 27-point rout of Valparaiso in Seattle in 2004.

The Zags (31-3) kept stacking up points and not allowing them – that’s pretty much an unbeatable combination – and when Tillie buried a 3-pointer, the Zags jogged off the court with a 53-17 halftime lead.

“We were really anxious (after losing in the West Coast Conference Tournament) and it showed in first half. We were playing with special aggression and intensity,” sophomore wing Corey Kispert said. “Coach (Mark) Few came into the locker room at halftime and said, ‘The old Zags are back, and it’s good to see you again.’ ”

Tillie had another strong performance in his third game back from a partially torn plantar fascia. The 6-foot-10 forward had a season-high 17 points in 18 minutes. He connected on a pair of 3s and a soaring dunk in traffic. He made 7 of 8 shots and added four assists.

“I jumped pretty high on that,” Tillie said. “I think Brandon (Clarke) was impressed with that. He talked to me about it.”

What did Clarke say?

“I was shocked, honestly,” said Clarke, Gonzaga’s team leader in dunks by a wide margin. “I didn’t think he was going to dunk it, but he did, and it was over two guys, and it was crazy. Easily one of my favorite moments of the season.”

Sophomore wing Zach Norvell Jr. bounced back from one of the toughest outings of his career – two points against the Gaels – with three 3-pointers, 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds. He buried his first shot, a pull-up 3-pointer in transition, and let out a little steam.

“It felt great, honestly, coming from Vegas and not having the best 3-point performance,” said Norvell, who also had one of his best defensive efforts against Edge. “Making the first shot is always good, and it felt like it got us going a little bit more.”

Fairleigh Dickinson (21-14) perked up on offense in the second half, but never seriously cut into Gonzaga’s lead, which reached 42 with 5 minutes remaining.

Edge never got comfortable. Running mate Jahlil Jenkins, who scored 22 points Tuesday in the Knights’ play-in win, rolled his right foot early on and finished with seven points.

Clarke swatted Holloway on the first play of the half. Later, Kaleb Bishop’s errant inbound pass flew into a row of FDU cheerleaders, prompting one to admonish the passer: “Kaleb!”

“If we get our bigs jumping at the rim every time, it can make players second-guess their shots in the paint,” said Clarke, who had three of the team’s six blocks.

Gonzaga shut off the paint and covered the 3-point line. FDU made only five field goals in the first half and shot 30 percent overall. The Knights, who entered the game fifth nationally at 40.4 percent on 3-pointers, hit just six and connected on 28.6 percent from distance.

“We drove by Gonzaga, but when we drove by, we found two more Gonzaga players,” Knights coach Greg Herenda said. “In our league generally, we’ll drive by a guy and there’ll be one player, and then we can make another pass and we get a great shot. It’s a different level.”

Gonzaga pocketed its 11th consecutive first-round NCAA Tournament win, matching Kansas for the nation’s longest active streak. The Bulldogs play ninth-seeded Baylor on Saturday in Salt Lake City with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.

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