The rematch wasn’t a replay. And it wasn’t nearly as comfortable for No. 1 Gonzaga.
The Zags built a 26-point lead with a sharp first half, then looked like a different team in the second half. So did Northwestern State, which torched Gonzaga’s defense in the paint and beyond the 3-point arc.
The Zags’ lead dwindled to 11 before they regained their composure and held off the Demons 95-78 Tuesday at the McCarthey Athletic Center, one night after an easy 95-57 victory over the visitors from Louisiana.
For 20 minutes, it looked like the perfect tune-up for the Zags, who face No. 16 Virginia on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. The hot-shooting Demons had other ideas in the closing half and forced the Zags to keep their starters in until the final minutes.
It was an impressive effort by the Demons, who end a grueling stretch of five games in six days against Washington State at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
“I have a ton of respect (for Northwestern State),” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They competed for 40 minutes each night. They got down big both nights, they didn’t quit and they kept coming and coming. I tip my hat to them.”
Few tipped his hat to the Zags’ first-half performance, particularly the defensive effort he called the best of the young season.
Gonzaga (6-0) had its second consecutive fast start, but this time the Zags sustained the momentum. The Zags scored the first 14 points and led 24-2 near the midpoint of the half.
Gonzaga’s baskets came easy and the Demons didn’t get many open looks. Northwestern State, trailing 5-0, called a timeout to try to stem Gonzaga’s early burst. GU responded with two field goals.
The Demons (1-9) brought in four subs and Gonzaga hiked its lead to 14-0 before Jamaure Gregg hit a jumper to put Northwestern State on the board with 15:09 left. The Zags scored the next 10 points before the Demons’ second field goal.
Gonzaga led 43-17 at the break, compared to 43-30 on Monday night.
The second half was a different story. Northwestern State poured in 61 second-half points, buried 10 of 13 3-pointers, including three on its first four possessions, and made 60% from the field.
The Zags didn’t have any problems scoring – they shot 65.6% in the second half – but they couldn’t get stops.
“It just shows when we’re locked in and fully engaged we’re pretty freaking good,” Zags sophomore forward Drew Timme said. “Once we take the foot off the gas, we’re just a regular team. While this sucks and it’s not something that’s fun at all, we can learn from this and I think we can turn this into a positive and just show what we are capable of.”
Northwestern State normally plays an uptempo style, but it was content to drain time off the shot clock Monday and in the first half Tuesday. The Demons cut it loose in the final 20 minutes and immediately looked more comfortable and confident.
The Demons opened the half with a 13-2 run to pull within 15. They made another charge and closed to 75-64 on Trenton Massner’s 3-pointer with 7:04 left.
“They were iso-ing us whether it was in the post or on the perimeter and they just put it on us pretty good,” Few said. “We had a couple of missed assignments and missed attention to details on those first 3s, and once those first three went in, that’s what’s happens in basketball, look out.
“They got on a roll and it looked like we were on roller skates.”
Gonzaga repeatedly fed Timme inside in the final 8 minutes and he delivered with close-range buckets and three free throws. He finished with 25 points. Jalen Suggs contributed 19 points and five assists and Corey Kispert added 18 points and six rebounds.
“It’s hard to feel great about either night,” Few said. “We handled it well enough to get the wins but it was far from perfect.”
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