After putting on a clinic offensively in two largely stress-free wins in Florida, No. 1 Gonzaga faced a steady dose of adversity Wednesday courtesy of a physical, tough-minded opponent.
The Zags were getting worked over on the boards, their high-powered offense was stuck in neutral and freshman point guard Jalen Suggs was on the bench in pain after suffering what initially appeared to be a serious injury.
Gonzaga’s hard-fought 87-82 victory over No. 11 West Virginia in the Jimmy V Classic may have lacked style points at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, but it was every bit as impressive as last week’s wins over No. 6 Kansas and Auburn.
Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard, whose waiver was granted by the NCAA two days before the season opener, delivered a monster effort off the bench. Joel Ayayi made big play after big play as Gonzaga seized the momentum. Drew Timme bounced back from a rough first half and Corey Kispert saved his best work for crunch time.
Those four combined for 50 of Gonzaga’s 53 second-half points.
Suggs, who tweaked his left ankle, according to coach Mark Few, returned early in the second half and contributed to the victory, even if he wasn’t quite at full speed.
“They were throttling us on the glass, throttling our offense there for a while,” Few said. “That’s basically how a lot of games are going to go. I don’t think they’re just going to be on and flowy and easy as they were in Florida. We’re going to have to adjust as players and coaches and just get ready for battles like that.”
West Virginia (3-1) took the fight to GU in the first half, controlling the pace and dominating the interior behind bigs Derek Culver, Oscar Tshiebwe and Gabe Osabuohien. In the first half, Culver and Tshiebwe combined for 17 points, 17 rebounds and they shut down Timme, who had just one field goal.
The Zags (3-0), who led by one when Suggs departed, looked deflated without the standout freshman as West Virginia quickly built a nine-point lead. Nembhard nailed a 3-pointer as the Zags trimmed the deficit to 39-34 at the break.
“Just tried to be who I am,” said Nembhard, who finished with 19 points, six assists and five rebounds. “I felt very comfortable stepping into that role.”
Nembhard had a bucket and an assist early in the second half as Gonzaga moved in front 40-39.
“He was spectacular,” Few said. “He steadied us because our ship was wobbly when Jalen got hurt.”
The Zags, mostly with a three-guard lineup and Kispert playing the ‘4’, more than held their own on the boards in the second half. Just as importantly, Gonzaga put foul pressure on Tshiebwe, Culver and Osabuohien, which helped Timme and the transition game get untracked in the second half.
Tshiebwe fouled out after scoring 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds in 21 minutes. Osabuohien fouled out with 10 points in 14 minutes. Culver finished with 18 points, 15 boards and four fouls.
“I don’t know how many teams out there are as tough and physical as West Virginia, and can bring that kind of size, strength and athleticism inside,” Few said. “I’m super proud of our guys for finding a way to win. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Playing West Virginia and (coach Bob) Huggins’ teams is never pretty.”
Timme heated up with 14 second-half points, the biggest when he beat Tshiebwe down the floor after a WVU field goal and scored a layup while drawing the big man’s fifth foul with 7:26 left.
Ayayi did most of his damage in the closing half with six field goals, six rebounds, two steals and two assists. His steal led to a Kipsert 3-pointer that hiked Gonzaga’s lead to 78-71 with 4:10 left. Kipsert finished with 21 points, 12 in the second half.
The Zags scored 40 of their 60 paint points in the final 20 minutes. They hit nearly 62% from the field after a 37% opening half.
“Just glad to play a high-level opponent,” said Few, whose team faces a showdown with No. 2 Baylor on Saturday in Indianapolis. “That’s a team that could very well win the Big 12 and obviously is going to be a low seed in the tournament.”
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