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Gonzaga rewind: ‘New team’ rolls with ups and downs in season opener

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 6, 2019

It was precisely what a first game – particularly one for a Gonzaga team with eight newcomers and just nine available scholarship players – should look like.

There were numerous smooth stretches, impressive dunks by Corey Kispert and Admon Gilder, ball movement and ball-hawking defense. Many of those were followed immediately by facepalm defensive lapses that left the Zags vulnerable on the boards and left Alabama State shooters alone on the perimeter.

No. 8 Gonzaga’s 95-64 victory in Tuesday’s season opener bounced across the spectrum. It was hardly a surprise to the coaching staff. Fans accustomed to the Zags typically breaking from the starting gate looking more polished might want to buckle up for the ride.

“We’re just a new team, man,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “We’re just new everywhere. I don’t know if we’re going to be perfect at any point this year.”

Probably not, but time is on the Zags’ side as they experience growing pains.

More in the latest Gonzaga rewind.

Defensive confusion

Gonzaga’s defense was good, even great, for long stretches. The Hornets were sitting at 15 points after 15 minutes. The Zags forced 21 turnovers, creating a nice portion of their offense at the other end.

But they also lost the boards 16-12 in the first half and repeatedly left capable 3-point shooters wide open. Gonzaga was slow to recover after doubling down on the post on Alabama State’s second possession. The Hornets swung the ball with two quick passes with defenders scrambling to catch up before they found Brandon Battle for an open baseline jumper.

Early in the second half, GU was guilty of overhelping on dribble penetration and gave up Jeremy Hamilton’s 3 from the corner. The Zags doubled the post on the next two plays, leaving Jacoby Ross open for easy 3-pointers after kick-out passes. On one, Kispert and Gilder seemed confused over which player had close-out responsibilities on Ross.

Few quickly called for a timeout.

“Nine straight points on three 3s off of complete breakdowns in coverage,” Kispert said. “It wasn’t anything they did. Those things have to tighten up before we play teams like (Texas) A&M and the Oregons and Seton Halls and (North) Carolinas because they’ll make you pay real quick.”

Alabama State made 9 of 16 3s (56.3%). The Hornets were 292nd nationally last season at 32.1%.

“Those were actually some veterans that made bad adjustments or didn’t listen to the call,” Few said. “We ended up not guarding guys that are really good shooters or not doing a certain ball-screen coverage when four guys are doing it and one isn’t. There’s some really good stuff to learn from.”

It was a similar situation concerning the first-half rebounding woes.

“The rotations is what caused the rebounding, because we’re rotating around and we’re not getting our coverages right,” Few said. “So we’re in the wrong place and that’s opening up some things.”

ASU shot just under 50 percent but didn’t light up the scoreboard with 64 points.

“A little soft defensively in the beginning, but I think we picked it up real quick, and once we got going we saw which guys could shoot and which guys were post threats and adjusted,” sophomore forward Filip Petrusev said. “Offensively, we did a pretty good job. We took care of the ball and took good shots.”

Petrusev injury scare

The last thing Gonzaga wanted to see was one of its top players writhing on the court in pain, but that’s what happened when Petrusev twisted his ankle trying to finish in transition midway through the first half.

Petrusev left the court with trainer Josh Therrien for a few minutes before returning to the bench and motioning to coaches he was good to go.

“I didn’t expect the ball that early, so I had a guy in front of me and I was going to Eurostep him,” Petrusev said. “On the first step, I twisted my ankle. It still hurts a little bit, but I should be good for the next game (Saturday vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff).

“It was a little scary, because I almost never twist my ankles. That’s why I never tape, too.”

Petrusev played 21 minutes and finished with 15 points and six rebounds. He went to the free-throw line a team-high eight times, making five.

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