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Analysis: Gonzaga battles past Santa Clara to maintain unbeaten record

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 25, 2021

The things that were expected to happen – Gonzaga’s 50th straight home win, matching the program record, and 27th consecutive victory dating back to last season – eventually happened.

But it took a while to get there as the Zags slogged through what coach Mark Few labeled “kind of a disjointed game.”

No. 1 Gonzaga trailed most of the first half and had its fair share of issues at both ends of the court before turning back Santa Clara 89-75 on Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

The Zags (23-0, 14-0 West Coast Conference) remained on track for the program’s first unbeaten regular season. Gonzaga entertains Loyola Marymount on Saturday.

“In the beginning, we just went through the motions. They played with a lot more passion to start the game,” GU freshman guard Jalen Suggs said. “We’d make two or three good plays, then we’d make a mistake, a turnover, a bad pass, (allow) a wide-open 3 and let them stay in the game.

“This was good for us to battle some adversity and to let us know anybody can get beat on any night.”

The Zags have had plenty of museum-worthy performances with their polished offense and improving defense. This wasn’t a work of art, but it did provide an unexpected 40-minute test that the Zags have rarely faced this season.

They passed, not necessarily with flying colors, but cornerstones Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, Joel Ayayi and Suggs and reserve guard Aaron Cook helped them reach the finish line.

It wasn’t easy because the Zags weren’t sharp and Santa Clara looked nothing like a 31-point underdog.

“I give all credit to Santa Clara,” Few said. “They came out with way more spirit, effort and ran their offense with more purpose, conviction and harder cuts.

“They were loading up in the paint, kind of daring us to take shots, and we probably did a little too much trying to make something out of nothing.”

The result: Gonzaga, which had trailed for 50 seconds in 10 home games, trailed for 11:26 of the first half. The Broncos burst in front 11-2 by catching Gonzaga’s defense napping for several easy buckets.

Santa Clara (10-7, 4-5) twice led by 10, equaling the largest deficit Gonzaga has faced this season. The Zags ripped off 11 straight points to take their first lead, 20-19, midway through the half.

The Broncos answered quickly. Giordan Williams scored on an easy layup and Josip Vrankic added a putback, drawing Timme’s second foul in the process. The Zags went back on top 28-24, but then sophomore forward Anton Watson exited with his third foul.

GU’s frontcourt depth has been mentioned as a potential sore spot, but freshmen Oumar Ballo and Ben Gregg each had baskets inside and Ayayi’s 3-pointer gave Gonzaga a 40-38 halftime edge.

Timme quickly made up for lost time on the bench in the first half. He scored on the first two possessions of the second half and fed Kispert for a 3-pointer as GU led 47-41. The Zags threatened to pull away, but couldn’t deliver the knockout blow.

“Just impatient with our reads, I would say that was probably the biggest thing,” Few said. “Every once in a while trying to pound the square peg into the round hole.

“They were doing a lot of different things, switching some ball screens and not others, protecting some of their bigs. The biggest thing is our ball movement wasn’t quite as crisp and when it was time to step up and let it rip, we weren’t quite doing that.”

Santa Clara was within 73-66 when Timme hit the last of his four straight field goals. He was fouled on three of those buckets and his three-point play boosted GU’s lead to 10.

Kispert’s 3-pointer hiked GU’s lead to 84-71 with 3:35 left.

Kispert finished with 25 points. Timme scored 16 of his 18 in the second half. Suggs flirted with a triple double (13 points, 11 boards and eight assists). Cook added 10 points.

Williams gave GU fits throughout. The sophomore guard hit four 3s and scored a career-high 18 points. He came in with 10 made 3s in 16 games and a 4.6 scoring average.

Broncos forward Guglielmo Caruso hit two 3s and scored 19 points, but the Zags, led by Kispert, limited leading scorer Vrankic to 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting.

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