Corey Kispert had some offseason goals. By reaching them, he started off the new season with a bang.
The junior wing dropped 5 to 10 pounds. He’s a tad more bouncy and his 3-point stroke appears to be dialed in, thanks in part to a few summer workouts with Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris.
Kispert put it all on display Tuesday with five 3-pointers, a pair of rim-rattling dunks and a career-best 28 points in No. 8 Gonzaga’s 95-64 season-opening nonconference victory at The Kennel over Alabama State.
“I wanted to be more aggressive, more assertive the entire 40 minutes,” said Kispert, whose big night allowed him to spend the last 5-plus minutes on the bench after the Zags’ lead reached 30 points. “I had pockets of that last year, but guys like BC (Brandon Clarke) and Rui (Hachimura) shouldered that load.
“This year it’s on guys like Filip (Petrusev), Admon (Gilder) and myself to bring that the entire game. It just so happened that everything I threw up found the bottom of the hoop.”
That didn’t just magically happen. Players tend to make the most improvement to their bodies and skill set during the offseason. Kispert had specific items in mind.
He carries plenty of muscle, but he made it a point to trim down to defend swift opponents and handle a bigger work load with extended minutes.
“Especially on defense, sometimes I felt like I was stuck in quicksand last year guarding guys,” Kispert said. “Shedding those few pounds helped me be lighter on my feet.”
Kispert was downright springy when he flew in from the wing for a pair of dunks as the Zags finally broke away in the second half from the Hornets. It doesn’t hurt that he’s now listed at 6-foot-7, an inch taller than when he arrived on campus.
Both Kispert jams followed Alabama State turnovers and helped turn the Zags’ 50-41 lead into a comfortable 69-44 advantage. Gonzaga turned 21 Hornets turnovers into 29 points.
“People forget I got second place in the (Kraziness in the Kennel) dunk contest two years in a row, man,” Kispert cracked. “I kind of flew under the radar.”
Kispert buried 5 of 6 3-point attempts, one in which he held his finish for an extra second as the ball disappeared in the net. He has made 36.5% beyond the arc in his career but wanted to improve on his accuracy.
He met up with Harris, who played at the University of Virginia for Tony Bennett, to work out for three days last summer in Harris’ hometown of Chelan. Kispert is friends with a coach at Bellevue Christian High who has been buddies with Harris since they were kids.
“Great guy, taught me a lot,” Kispert said of Harris. “I learned some things, tightened up my shot, making my release a little quicker, and overall just hunting the shots more and letting them fly when you might be guarded a little bit. He can really shoot it.”
The Zags shot it well (57.6%), took care of the ball (eight turnovers), shared it (24 assists) and scored inside (46 paint points) and from deep (10 of 20 on 3-pointers).
But they weren’t consistent on defense and on the boards. Alabama State had a run of 3-pointers, several with no defenders in the area, and won the first-half rebounding battle 16-12.
Gonzaga led 32-15, but its defense drifted and the Hornets cut the margin to 10. They had a chance to trim it to eight but missed the front end of a 1-and-1 as the Zags led 42-30 at the break.
Gonzaga finally pulled away by holding Alabama State scoreless for nearly 6 minutes. The Zags also cleaned up on the glass, outrebounding the Hornets 22-9 in the final 20 minutes.
“We had to work hard to get an extension (of the lead),” coach Mark Few said. “At times we were played pretty solid defense, but we had a couple of mental errors on our coverages, and good teams make you pay.
“They stepped up and hit a couple 3s when we blew some coverages, and that’s why it kind of stayed close for a while. Lot of things to work on and get better at.”
Petrusev, who missed a few minutes in the first half after twisting his ankle, had 15 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Gilder warmed up in the second half to finish with 12 points. Ryan Woolridge and freshman Drew Timme each added 11 points.
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