Gonzaga’s slow starts are beginning to outnumber its fast ones. Noiseless environments inside arenas home and away are stacking up game after game.
One might have something to do with the other.
Thursday was another night when the top-ranked Bulldogs were sluggish early but eventually found their stride during a businesslike 90-62 road victory over San Diego at the Jenny Craig Pavilion.
The Zags were without reserve center Oumar Ballo. The 7-foot freshman is sidelined with a left thumb injury and will be evaluated on a weekly basis.
Gonzaga (16-0. 7-0 West Coast Conference) remains one of five unbeatens in Division I, but the latest victory came with plenty of teaching material.
The Zags were stagnant on offense for the first 10 minutes and had numerous breakdowns on defense, including leaving Finn Sullivan for an open 3-pointer with a 26-point lead with 4:35 remaining, prompting coach Mark Few to call a timeout.
“We just have to do a better job internally,” Gonzaga sophomore forward Drew Timme said. “There’s nothing that any team does to us that we can’t handle, but coming into an environment like this, like every environment, there’s no energy, no fans. We have to do a better job of coming out ready from the jump.
“They kind of got into us in the first half and we looked like a regular team. We missed our assignments and coverages, but the second half coach lit into us like we needed to get lit into because we did not play good. We responded and showed what we’re capable of, but this is kind of a recurring thing. We really need to get this in check.”
By game’s end, Gonzaga’s numbers were in line with its season averages with 57.6% shooting, 23 assists and five players in double figures. Timme and Corey Kispert combined for 40 points, Julian Strawther provided a nice lift off the bench with 11 points and Andrew Nembhard had 10 assists.
San Diego had success from behind the 3-point line and shot 44% overall, but 17 turnovers were converted by Gonzaga into 26 points.
“They have the No. 1 offense in the nation and I believe the No. 15 defense (No. 11 in KenPom’s metrics),” San Diego coach Sam Scholl said. “They’re very, very good on both sides of the ball.”
San Diego opted to defend Timme 1-on-1, and the results were predictable. The 6-foot-10 sophomore had 13 points in the opening half, even with a few uncharacteristic misses from close range, and a 3-of-6 effort at the foul line.
Timme dominated inside in the second half, drawing fouls on posts Vladimir Pinchuk and Yavuz Gultekin as the Zags stretched their lead. Timme finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and two assists while Pinchuk and Gultekin combined for eight fouls.
“The problem with Drew is he’s so good you have a tendency to think he’s going to make them all,” Few said. “I thought they battled him pretty good in there. They were physical and made shots hard. But then like he always does, he always figures it out, solves it and ends up ‘stat-ing’ out great.”
San Diego (2-7, 1-4) took it to Gonzaga at the outset, and it took a while for the Zags to get up to speed. The Toreros worked the shot clock nearly every time down the floor, limiting the number of possessions and generally getting decent looks.
Gonzaga lost track of cutters and 3-point shooters several times in the opening half and paid for it with Ben Pyle and Sullivan combining to hit 4 of 6 from deep. The Toreros led by five on three occasions, but a string of turnovers near the top of the key helped jump-start Gonzaga’s offense.
“I was impressed with them,” Few said of USD, limited to nine games due to two COVID-19-related pauses. “They ran their stuff with some pace and they were crisp, finished shots around the rim, and most importantly, when we had a breakdown or they executed a play right they made 3s.”
The Zags snapped out of their early funk with 15 unanswered points, including Kispert’s dunk and Strawther’s layup after San Diego turnovers to open up a 29-19 lead. Sullivan’s 3-ball trimmed Gonzaga’s lead to 32-26 but Anton Watson’s jump hook and Kispert’s 3-pointer made it 40-29 at the break.
Gonzaga methodically pulled away in the second half. Kispert hit a 3-pointer trailing the break to bump GU’s lead to 20 with 13:20 remaining. Jalen Suggs’ four-point play and steal and dunk made it 64-40. Timme’s three-point play extended the margin to 25.