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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga rewind: Joel Ayayi’s milestone and Anton Watson’s big night

Gonzaga’s Anton Watson drives to the basket against Portland’s Michael Henn in the first half Saturday.  (Associated Press)

Gonzaga welcomed another program first – that list keeps getting shorter and shorter – with Joel Ayayi’s milestone triple-double in Saturday’s rout over Portland.

More on Ayayi, Anton Watson’s breakout performance and coach Mark Few lining up a guest speaker when the Zags were in Indianapolis last month.

Thrice as nice

Any number of descriptions apply to the versatile Ayayi. The 6-foot-5 guard had 12 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists to become the first player in program history to post a triple-double.

Ayayi has long been regarded as the best rebounding guard in school history, cemented by his single-game high of 18 against then-No. 3 Iowa in December. He leads Gonzaga at 8.1 boards per game. Few boiled Ayayi’s triple-double to its impact on the bottom line.

“Anytime you get a triple-double it just shows how engaged you are in the game and how many good things you do to help your team win,” Few said. “That’s obviously what Joel does. He has a knack for winning. Fourteen assists is pretty amazing in its own right.”

Few said Ayayi’s accomplishment was “crazy,” and mentioned Domantas Sabonis and Blake Stepp among Zags that were more than capable of a triple-double.

Ayayi’s name will be added to the list of the WCC’s last 15 confirmed triple-doubles. BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth had 12 triple-doubles between 2014-16. Loyola Marymount’s Eli Scott had the most recent triple-double against Grambling in 2019.

Pepperdine’s Doug Christie (1991 vs. Saint Mary’s) and Santa Clara’s Kurt Rambis (1977 vs. San Francisco) are the first two names on the list.

Watson’s work

Two nights after Few said, “You always want a little more from Anton,” he got a lot more from Watson.

Few pointed out that Watson was really good defensively against BYU on Thursday, but pushed the Gonzaga Prep product to finish more around the basket. Watson scored eight points against the Cougars and came back with a career-high 23 points in less than 24 minutes versus the Pilots.

Watson made 8 of 9 shots, 1 of 1 from deep and 6 of 7 free throws. That elevated the 6-8 sophomore’s scoring average to 8.4 points, his 2-point percentage to 68.0 and his free-throw accuracy to 75.0%.

“It was good to see some balls go in. To be honest he’s been a little slow getting it going on the offensive end but he does a lot of other things that maybe don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Few said. “He has incredible hands on the defensive end, and he does a nice job connecting all our actions in our offense.

“He’s somebody that spent a lot of time shooting the ball from 3 in the offseason and currently right now so I think we’ll see his numbers correct as he gets more attempts and more sample size.”

Tournament thoughts

The NCAA indicated in mid November it was planning to hold the entire NCAA tournament in Indianapolis and made it official a week ago.

That timeline afforded Few an opportunity to ask friend Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, to address the team when the Zags were in Indianapolis in early December to play West Virginia and Baylor, the latter canceled in response to COVID-19 concerns.

“He did a great job of asking them what it would be like and what would it take to enhance the experience,” Few said. “Our guys gave him some good ideas they’re still working on. The NCAA is doing a great job of really trying to make it as special as they can, but all the while ensuring that we have it. We need to have it.

“Like I’ve said before, there’s Division I, Division II, Division III, any sport out there, any championship you like to go to, if you like baseball, hockey, women’s basketball or volleyball, the men’s NCAA tournament needs to happen because it supports them all. They are doing everything they possibly can to make this thing happen.”

Programming notes

Gonzaga has announced TV updates for this week’s games. The Zags entertain Pepperdine at 2 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2. Saturday’s Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game in Moraga will be televised on ESPN at 5 p.m.