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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga picks up where it left off before break, uses balanced attack to cruise past North Alabama 93-63

Dec. 28, 2021 Updated Fri., Jan. 7, 2022 at 3:39 p.m.

The post-Christmas Gonzaga Bulldogs looked very much like the preholiday version.

Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton continue to supply a scoring punch. Anton Watson added another impressive performance off the bench with his first career double-double. Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren applied foul pressure on opposing bigs.

Fourth-ranked Gonzaga quickly shook off any rust from an eight-day span between games, routing North Alabama 93-63 Tuesday afternoon in front of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“Maybe like in the first couple minutes (there was some rust), but we started to pick it up probably around that 10-minute mark in the first half,” Watson said. “In the second half we were playing defense.”

Watson scored 10 points, reaching double figures for the fourth time in five games, to go with 10 rebounds.

Everyone in Gonzaga’s primary eight-man rotation had a hand in the victory over the Lions, who are in the final season of a four-year transition to Division I.

Strawther and Bolton combined for 29 points, seven rebounds, three 3-pointers, four assists and zero turnovers in 46-plus minutes. Four of Gonzaga’s starters didn’t commit a turnover.

Timme had 12 points and seven boards. Half of his points came at the foul line as GU benefited from its size advantage inside. Timme fired a pretty bounce pass to Andrew Nembhard for a transition layup, drawing one of the loudest ovations in the game.

Holmgren added nine points and seven boards. Freshmen guard Nolan Hickman drained three 3-pointers and scored 13 points. Freshmen guard Hunter Sallis added eight points and five rebounds.

“I think we actually picked it up pretty well from where we left it,” Hickman said. “They gave us workouts to do while we were on break, so we didn’t really miss a beat coming back.”

Gonzaga (11-2) will open West Coast Conference play on the road against Loyola Marymount on Saturday. The Zags’ game against San Diego, scheduled for Thursday, was postponed due to COVID-19 issues in USD’s program.

The Lions (7-6) were within 25-19 after Dallas Howell’s 3-pointer, but they went scoreless over the next 4:21. Gonzaga scored 14 unanswered points to take a 20-point lead. The margin reached 36 points midway through the second half.

Gonzaga worked over the shorter Lions in the open court – 18-3 advantage on fastbreak points – and inside – 52-26 edge in paint points.

The Zags had just nine turnovers against North Alabama, which forces 18.8 per game.

“I thought the best thing we did was take great care of the ball,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That team actually turns people over a lot and has a high steal percentage. That first group of the top seven, eight guys did a really nice job of taking care of the ball.”

North Alabama tweaked its defensive approach, but the Zags quickly adjusted and rolled to a 47-25 halftime lead.

“They had really been a team that goes under on a lot of screens so we prepared for that, thinking we just didn’t want to take first available 3,” Few said. “But then they ended up really playing us physical and going over the top of everything. We did a good job managing that and making the right read, and getting to the right spot, whether it came from a perimeter 3 or even a nice post-up or dump down.”

Gonzaga was in the bonus at the free-throw line for the final 11:38 of the first half. North Alabama was whistled for 25 fouls. The Zags didn’t take full advantage, making 18 of 31 (58.1%) free throws, but they still outscored the Lions by nine at the line.

“It played a lot into the game plan,” Watson said. “We kind of had control and just being aggressive and getting those fouls, we were at the free-throw line a lot. We just have to knock down our free throws.”

Gonzaga’s defense was at its best as the Zags’ lead expanded. On one play, the Zags switched on a perimeter screen and the 7-foot Holmgren did a nice job of staying in front of 6-foot guard Daniel Ortiz, who passed the ball inside to 6-10 Pape Cisse. Nembhard stripped the ball from Cisse, who ended up fouling the GU guard.

The Lions made 32.4% from the field, 27.6% behind the 3-point line.

“The defensive numbers were really good, especially in the first half,” Few said. “They banked a 3 in and hit another tough one. They’re capable of making a lot of 3s. We wanted to force them into Chet and try to get them take tough 2s. For the most part, we did a nice job.”

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