Every college basketball team is experiencing wear and tear as the regular season winds down, Gonzaga probably more so than most with its seven-man rotation and limited bench.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had noticed some slippage in games even before last Saturday’s loss to BYU with several players battling fatigue in recent weeks. It’s been a challenge to address specific issues because physical practices aren’t a preferred option with a shortage of healthy bodies.
Some of those issues resurfaced in the first half against San Diego, but the third-ranked Bulldogs fought through it with a tidy second half and cruised to a 94-59 victory Thursday in front of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“We’ve had a long year with not much depth,” Few said. “Guys are physically tired and they can get mentally tired, too. To come out, especially in the second half, our defensive intensity was really good and we were pretty darn efficient on the offensive end. I was proud of that.”
The coach was extremely proud of Gonzaga securing another outright WCC championship. The Zags (28-2, 14-1 WCC) have 17 solo crowns, two shared titles with Saint Mary’s and two second-place finishes in Few’s 21 seasons.
“To be able to win a league championship with so many of these teams returning almost their entire rosters, it’s got lost with all the success we’ve had,” Few said. “It was looking like a daunting task in the fall, I know that.”
Thursday’s game started out with promise for the Toreros but ended with a near repeat of the first meeting in San Diego, a 94-50 Gonzaga win.
“They’re a really good team, they just happen to be at the bottom of the pool in our conference,” said senior guard Admon Gilder, who scored 12 points, one of five Zags in double figures. “You have to give them credit for coming out and playing pretty good, but we stepped up our game in the second half. When we’re able to play like that, we’re really unstoppable.”
The Zags weren’t sharp early at either end of the floor. Ninth-place San Diego (9-21, 2-13) was patient, worked the shot clock and kept Gonzaga’s transition game in check by committing just five turnovers.
It was tied at 18 when Gonzaga went to work inside against a USD defense missing 6-foot-10 center Yauhen Massalski, who suffered a broken ankle last Saturday.
Sophomore post Filip Petrusev heated up after missing his first four shots. Killian Tillie added a pair of buckets, Gilder connected on a 3-pointer and Corey Kispert dunked in transition as Gonzaga moved in front 39-27.
Gilder’s 3 gave Gonzaga a 46-34 edge at halftime.
San Diego was still hanging around, down 66-51 near the midpoint of the second half, when the Zags stomped on the gas pedal. Senior point guard Ryan Woolridge got loose in transition with three layups as Gonzaga stretched its lead to 80-54 with 7 minutes left.
“Once we started playing better on defense and being really aggressive, that helped, and the crowd got involved,” said Woolridge, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. “We started rolling from there.”
The Zags took full advantage of San Diego’s dwindling frontcourt options. James Jean-Marie fouled out, and two more bigs had four fouls. Petrusev racked up field goals or trips to the free-throw line. The disparity in rebounding and paint points continued to widen, along with GU’s lead.
Gonzaga won the boards by 24 and outscored San Diego in the paint 54-22.
“In the first half they were kind of loose, making shots and it was a little on us just not being intense enough on defense,” said Petrusev, who finished with a game-high 21 points and nine rebounds. “In the second half, we obviously knew we were the better team so we got into it, played better defense and got some easy points on the fastbreak.”
Kispert scored 16 points, 13 in the first half. The Zags made 52% from the field.
Joey Calcaterra led USD with 19 points, but the Toreros hit just 30% of their second-half shots.
Third-place Saint Mary’s visits Saturday for Gonzaga’s Senior Night. The Zags have won 38 consecutive games at home, the longest active streak in the nation.
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