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Analysis: Gonzaga adjusts to slower pace, handles Saint Mary’s 73-59

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, left, celebrates with Drew Timme during the second half Saturday as the Zags gained control of their game against Saint Mary’s in Moraga, Calif.  (Associated Press)

Gonzaga faced its largest deficit of the season – 10 points – with a sleepy start to Saturday’s rivalry game against rival Saint Mary’s.

The Bulldogs snapped to attention quickly, wiped out the deficit and handled the Gaels 73-59 at UCU Pavilion in Moraga, California.

Top-ranked Gonzaga (14-0, 5-0 West Coast Conference) won comfortably in a game that was in sharp contrast to its first 13 victories. This was more of a grinder, slower-paced affair preferred by the Gaels, but the Zags were still efficient on offense (53.8% from the field) and they leaned on their defense for large segments of the final 29 minutes.

“In the first half we took some rushed shots, a little too antsy,” sophomore forward Drew Timme said. “Once we settled in, we played the way we’re supposed to play and we know how to play. I think we showed our versatility that we can win in any style of game.”

The Gaels executed their game plan early, creating good looks on most possessions, shutting down GU’s transition game and contesting shots in the half court.

Throw in a domination on the glass and Saint Mary’s jumped in front 22-12 after Dan Fotu’s layup with 9 minutes remaining in the half. That eclipsed a nine-point deficit late in the first half against West Virginia as the biggest GU has faced this season.

Then came the U-turn. Gonzaga’s rally was led by Aaron Cook and Joel Ayayi. Cook started it with a 3-pointer and Ayayi dropped a floater in the lane.

“We looked tired, we played tired, our faces and our body language,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “So it was nice to get somebody fresh in there (Cook) that was willing to fly around and makes some plays. He got us going a little bit.”

Gonzaga adjusted its ball-screen coverage and the defense reeled in the Gaels’ offense. Saint Mary’s missed 15 of its last 16 field-goal attempts in the opening half.

“This was not a pretty game for us and Saint Mary’s deserves a lot of credit for that,” Few said. “They’re going to fight you and be tough and physical and the lane is going to be jammed up. They did a good job of taking the fight to us, especially in that first 10 minutes.”

Logan Johnson’s bucket ended a 5-minute, 15-second dry spell for the Gaels, but the Zags controlled the final 3:40 of the half. It took Gonzaga 15 minutes to score its first 19 points. It took the Zags just 5 minutes to score their next 13.

It was made possible by the Zags’ lock-down defense, which triggered their transition game. Cook scored on the break after an Anton Watson steal. Ayayi broke loose for a pair of layups and he took a nice feed from Corey Kispert for a layup on a backdoor cut.

“AC (Cook) really got us going,” Timme said. “He bailed us out in that first half. He was definitely the player of the game for us.”

The Zags erased the 10-point deficit with a 20-3 run that put them in front 32-25 at the break. Gonzaga’s momentum carried over into the second half as the Zags quickly went up by 12 on Jalen Suggs’ three-point play. From there, the teams traded baskets before Gonzaga pulled into a 69-51 lead with an 11-3 spurt fueled by Kispert’s eight points.

Gonzaga’s Big Four of Kispert (17), Ayayi (16), Timme (14) and Suggs (14) combined for 61 points. GU’s 73 points were a season low by 12.

Saint Mary’s senior point guard Tommy Kuhse gave the Zags fits early. He had a driving layup and 3-pointer and handed out six assists as the Gaels’ lead reached double digits. Kuhse struggled as the game progressed, finishing with 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting and just one second-half assist.

The Gaels (9-5, 0-3) lost their first three conference games for the first time since the 2005-06 season.

Barring a schedule change, Gonzaga has a short break before entertaining Pacific (5-1, 2-0) on Saturday.