Gonzaga’s offense has been led primarily by Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs, but there’s plenty of room for others to put up big numbers.
It was Joel Ayayi’s turn Monday night. The junior guard, coming off games with zero, six and eight points, scored nine points in the first three minutes against overmatched Northern Arizona.
Ayayi set the tone early for No. 1 Gonzaga’s 88-58 blowout over the Lumberjacks at the McCarthey Athletic Center. The Zags face a quick turnaround before entertaining Dixie State on Tuesday night.
“Just staying confident and trusting the work I put in,” said Ayayi, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes for his second double-double of the season. “Everybody has rough patches, and I was in one. Hopefully I’m out of it.”
About the only concerning news of the evening was when Gonzaga announced 15 minutes before tip-off that Suggs wouldn’t play due to a right leg injury. The freshman point guard suffered the injury in the second half against Virginia on Saturday, but kept playing.
“He tweaked his leg a little bit,” coach Mark Few said. “It was bothering him on the flight home and then a little bit (Sunday) so we held him out. We’ll see how he does with warm-ups (Tuesday) and make a call.”
Suggs missed a portion of the West Virginia game Dec. 2 with a left ankle injury but returned in the second half.
Andrew Nembhard replaced Suggs in the starting lineup and the Zags’ offense didn’t miss a beat.
Gonzaga (8-0) was up 10-0 before the game was three minutes old. The margin grew to 24-5 and then 44-16 after Ayayi scored in the lane with 4:10 left in the half. Nembhard had 10 points and three assists as GU led 51-23 at the break.
Ayayi swished a 3-pointer early in the second half, putting GU up by 31. He made 4 of 5 from 3-point range after entering the game 3 of 18 beyond the arc.
“I think it’s just the way I feel when I catch the ball,” Ayayi said. “If I did my work early and I’m ready to shoot, I’ll let it fly. It’s something I’ve worked on in the past month, making sure I’m ready when I catch and shooting is the first option.”
The coaching staff has been pushing Ayayi to take more shots. He attempted just 13 shots in the previous three games. He was 6 of 8 against NAU (1-6).
“He’s been turning down a lot of shots in these other games, been looking to slow play our ball-screen actions,” Few said. “We told him he needs to hunt shots. He was thinking drives in prior games, and he’s having great success driving, but he a more-than- capable 3-point shooter.
“He’s hit some big 3s over his career. Those were ones where his feet were ready and his hands were ready and he was hunting them. It was good to see him get back to that.”
Drew Timme scored 14 points and freshman Dominick Harris added 12 for the Zags, who shot 50% from the field. NAU was led by Cameron Shelton’s 20 points, but he was just 7 of 18 from the field and didn’t score in the first nine-plus minutes.
The easy victory gave the Zags an opportunity to use their deep bench before facing Dixie State. Nembhard was the only Zag to log 30 minutes; Anton Watson had nine points in nearly 29 minutes.
“We just want to play basketball. A bunch of games have been canceled and we have a chance to play game after game in a short period of time,” Ayayi said of GU’s busy schedule since coming off a COVID-19 pause earlier this month. “We’re more about the opportunity and thankful for the opportunity to play games. Thinking about getting tired would be foolish.”
The Dixie State Trailblazers (4-1) are Division I newcomers in the Western Athletic Conference after a successful run at the D-II level. They are in the first season of a four-year reclassification period.
Jacob Nicolds, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior forward, averages 13.4 points to lead a balanced offense. Nine Trailblazers average at least six points.
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