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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Andrew Nembhard’s stellar showing against West Virginia just another example of Gonzaga’s embarrassment of riches

Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard finished with 19 points, six assists and five rebounds while filling in admirably at point guard during Wednesday’s win over West Virginia in Indianapolis.  (Associated Press)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

You may have heard. Gonzaga’s got guys.

So many, in fact, that during the Bulldogs’ season debut last week it almost seemed an embarrassment of riches, especially as it was showcased on the day you’re supposed to be all humble and grateful for even modest gifts.

Avarice? Hardly.

You can never have enough guys.

That notion came over Mark Few some weeks ago, and however secure he was in his feeling then the true confirmation came Tuesday night, when Bulldogs faced down the basketball wood chipper that is West Virginia 87-82, lifted by the 19 points and six assists of one Andrew Nembhard.

Who wasn’t even supposed to be one of the guys.

“I came here,” Nembhard admitted, “with the mindset of sitting out.”

But what would a season be without a good plot twist?

And, no, COVID-19 is not a good plot twist.

The Nembhard story and Tuesday’s script-flip may as well have been cribbed from basic cable, if Lifetime had a sports channel.

Not quite 13 minutes into the action, GU freshman sensation Jalen Suggs drove right of the key, shoveled a pass to teammate Joel Ayayi breaking down the baseline and threw on the brakes. But Suggs skidded awkwardly on his left foot, and when he went to the floor shockwaves of dread and heartbreak went through Zagdom.

It looked, well, terrible. An Achilles or an ankle. Suggs couldn’t put any weight on the foot and bridged on Few and trainer Josh Therrien to get to the sidelines. The pain and trauma could be seen on the freshman’s face, and the year of fun he was granting Gonzaga before his flight to the NBA seemed very much in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, there was this game going on – though not much of note was going on for the Zags.

Their shooting – sizzling in the Thanksgiving weekend wins over Kansas and Auburn – was in the low 30s. They were getting buried on the glass. It was a tossup as to who was beating up Drew Timme worse – Mountaineers strongmen Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, or Seth Greenberg at halftime.

The emotional sag that hit the Zags after Suggs’ injury allowed West Virginia to stretch out to a 35-26 lead. But that’s when Nembhard came up with a nervy 3-pointer and followed up with a nifty Eurostep layup and there was life, if not a lead.

Nembhard’s midsummer transfer from the University of Florida came with an eye toward GU’s future. The Zags were already stocked at guard, and Suggs’ one-and-doneness would require an experienced replacement in 2022. But then the NCAA decided, with the pandemic turning the season upside down, that the year wouldn’t count against any player’s remaining eligibility.

And Few’s pragmatism kicked in.

“This is a free year for everybody,” Few explained. “It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to sit out. It was obviously Andrew’s decision and we put it to him. I kind knew with a year like this, who knows what the lineup’s going to be every day and who’s going to be available? So we kind of needed all hands on deck.

“We’re sitting there watching practice and seeing a guy who’s really, really, really good. I’m not very smart, but I brought up the obvious to everybody that I think he should play.”

So an application was made for a waiver to the NCAA’s transfer rules, which normally require a sit-out year – though those, too, have been turned upside down. Just days before the season opener, Nembhard was cleared.

“Even when I got the waiver, I was still kind of contemplating whether I wanted to sit out or not,” Nembhard said. “But I got a great opportunity to play with these guys.”

The Zags were still in a fistfight – down by two – with 6½ minutes to play when Nembhard broke down two defenders for a layup to spark a 13-4 Gonzaga burst. Then he put the Mountaineers away in the last 2 minutes with a drifting bank shot and passes to Timme and Ayayi.

“I think the thing we value the most is his experience,” Few said. “He’s got 60, 70 games under his belt – starting, playing 30 minutes, playing in tough environments. And he’s a big-time athlete.”

Just like Suggs, who made a stunning return to the lineup at the first TV timeout at the second half – with a pronounced limp that had just about everyone questioning both player and coach.

“I didn’t want him to play,” Few insisted. “He convinced me he could be a factor. He was limping around on the first up and down and I told him if he keeps limping, I was going to pull him out. He quit limping.”

He also had no trouble moving to off guard and letting Nembhard run the show. He didn’t score again – but he didn’t come out the last 15 minutes, either, and “made some nice winning plays for us,” Few said.

Because the Zags just don’t got guys.

They’ve got winning guys.