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No. 5 Gonzaga zones in on Merrimack’s defense, rolls to 80-55 victory

Gonzaga got in 40 minutes of work against a zone defense Thursday and the results were generally positive.

The fifth-ranked Zags did test head coach Mark Few’s deep supply of angst-ridden postures, facial expressions and arm gestures due to their high number of turnovers, but when they took care of the ball, they took care of Merrimack’s defense.

It wasn’t necessarily a comfortable first half, but Gonzaga quickly expanded its lead in the closing half with a spurt of hot 3-point shooting and by clamping down defensively en route to an 80-55 victory in front of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

The Zags (8-2) enter an unexpected nine-day span between games with the cancellation of Sunday’s home game against Washington due to COVID-19 issues in the Huskies program. Few said GU will try to schedule a fill-in game, but teams’ schedules are set and there have been few COVID-19 cancellations outside of Washington’s program.

The Warriors’ 2-3 zone is designed to force turnovers, limit 3s and prevent shots at the rim. In that regard, it was mission accomplished (GU committed 17 turnovers), split decision (Zags 0 of 6 in first half, five 3s in second) and better luck next time (Gonzaga had 42 paint points and made frequent trips to the free-throw line).

“We had 42 (points) at half,” Few said. “That’s pretty good, especially when teams have been averaging 60 per game (against Merrimack). You don’t play teams, other than Syracuse and the Huskies used to do that but not so much anymore, that play 40 minutes of zone.

“We were right around 1.23 or 1.25 and that’s a great OER (offensive efficiency rating). We’re still turning the ball over a lot, but that team creates a lot of turnovers.”

Drew Timme did most of the damage in the lane, collecting 20 first-half points on perfect shooting – 7 of 7 from the field, all inside 10 feet, and 6 of 6 at the free-throw line.

“Zones are tricky. It’s hard to prep for a team that runs zone for a full game,” Timme said. “We did a great job of just moving the ball and I thought we handled it really well.

“It’s pretty easy when you have guys that can give you that ball right at the charge (half) circle. I didn’t have to do too much. I work on that every day, it was nice to see all of them go in for once.”

Timme only had two points the rest of the way, but Julian Strawther and Chet Holmgren heated up in the closing half. Holmgren hit Gonzaga’s first 3-pointer 1 minute into the second half.

Strawther connected on two more 3s and Holmgren added another from distance as Gonzaga’s lead grew to 62-36 on Strawther’s layup with 12:18 remaining.

Merrimack (4-7) made just 25% from the field, 24% on 3-pointers, in the second half.

Warriors junior forward Jordan Minor finished with a team-high 17 points, but he was held in check well into the second half. He made just 7 of 19 shots and had a couple swatted by the 7-foot Holmgren.

“Minor is a nice player,” Few said. “He puts foul pressure on you, strong, can score around the basket and drive you. Chet did do a nice job, he made his shots tough and our guards did a nice job (with) some of those downhill switches we rotated over and put a body on him.”

The Zags controlled the boards throughout. Merrimack, a member of the Northeast Conference, started 5-10 and 5-11 guards and Timme, Holmgren and Anton Watson had a size advantage on the Warriors’ frontcourt.

Gonzaga owned the glass, 56-20. The Zags had 18 offensive boards, leading to a 20-9 edge in second-chance points.

Holmgren finished with 15 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. Strawther added 15 points, two assists and zero turnovers, the only Zag without a turnover that played more than 3 minutes.

Watson packed the stat sheet with nine points, 10 boards, five assists and three steals.

“I like playing against zones honestly,” Watson said. “Lately, just pass to this dude (Timme) and it’s an assist.”

Gonzaga led by 11 at half. The margin could have been bigger, but the Zags were chilly behind the 3-point arc. The Zags misfired on all six first-half attempts. Coupled with eight turnovers, Gonzaga wasn’t able to pull away from the visitors from North Andover, Massachusetts.

Gonzaga pushed the margin to 14 late in the half with an 8-0 spurt, but the Warriors scored seven points in the final minute, including a buzzer beater by Malik Edmead, to trail 42-31 at the break.