MALIBU, Calif. – It wasn’t pretty, easy or smooth, and that’s why coach Mark Few found No. 2 Gonzaga’s grind-it-out victory over Pepperdine so appealing.
The Bulldogs didn’t have their best stuff. Their short rotation got shorter without Killian Tillie (reaggravated his left ankle injury) and a couple of players dealing with foul trouble.
But they played their best basketball when it was required, pulling away in the second half for an 89-77 victory Saturday in front of 3,104 inside Firestone Fieldhouse.
“It’s a good type of game going into March because we weren’t playing great,” Few said. “We were a little flustered and had a lot of adversity, starting with Killian not being able to play, guys in foul trouble, mismatched lineups and a hot guard (Colbey Ross) going against us.
“It’s really good to be able to find a way to solve those things and find a way to win. That’s how you have to win in March. Somehow, even though it doesn’t look good or feel good, you find a way.”
Gonzaga (26-1, 12-0 West Coast Conference) won its 18th straight game and 39th in a row over the Waves (14-13, 7-6). The Zags are one win – or one BYU loss – from clinching at least a share of the WCC title. It nearly happened Saturday, but the Cougars edged San Diego 72-71.
The Zags’ trademark balance took the first half off as sophomore forward Filip Petrusev overpowered smaller defenders and scored 20 of the team’s 40 points. The rest of the Zags got into the act as Gonzaga took control in the second half.
This wasn’t a replay of Gonzaga’s 75-70, down-to-the-wire win over the Waves last month, but it had that feel for the first 22-plus minutes.
“They’re talented,” Petrusev said. “They basically play with five guards and forwards most of the game. They shoot a lot of 3s, and then they try to drive us, get us to switch (on defense). They bring it against good teams.”
Tied at 40, the Zags found some breathing room with a 16-5 burst early in the second half.
Five Zags scored, including Petrusev, who contributed three points. Drew Timme had a layup, Corey Kispert buried one of his five 3-pointers and Admon Gilder added another 3.
Joel Ayayi feathered a pass through a sea of arms on Kispert’s corner 3. Ayayi had a steal and converted a layup at the other end. He closed the burst with a 3-pointer as Gonzaga took a 56-45 lead.
“Whenever (Petrusev) is able to play like that, teams are going to start doubling him,” said Gilder, who finished with 11 points and five assists. “When it was time to get the ball, it was time to go to work.
“I think Joel was kind of quiet in the first half. He had a better half on the defensive end and the offensive end. He found his rhythm.”
So did the rest of the Zags. By the end, six scored in double figures, led by Petrusev’s 27 points. Kispert scored 19 points, grabbed six boards and had five assists.
“A beast,” Kispert said of Petrusev’s first-half effort. “Us guards were sporadic and turning it over and rushing things. He kind of settled us down and made sure our offense stayed consistent throughout.”
Ryan Woolridge finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Ayayi had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists and Timme added 10 points.
It was more than enough to offset Ross, who racked up 23 points and six assists, and Kameron Edwards’ 22 points.
A couple of lines made the difference – the free-throw line and the 3-point line. The Zags made nine more free throws than the Waves. Gonzaga hit 8 of 17 3-pointers compared to Pepperdine’s 5 of 20.
“Those are the types of wins you have to get if you’re going to win a league championship,” Few said. “It wasn’t going perfect for long stretches with how we were playing, with foul trouble and with the (number of) available guys.
“That’s one of the better wins we’ve had this year with what we dealt with and how we powered through it.”