Aaron Cook probably doesn’t crack the top six on most opponents’ scouting reports, but Pepperdine knows all about the Southern Illinois graduate transfer.
Cook was a game-changer against the Waves for the second time in 16 days. The senior guard’s impact was even more dramatic Saturday, helping No. 1 Gonzaga erase another sluggish start with 35 minutes of domination in a 97-75 rout at Firestone Fieldhouse in Malibu, California.
Cook was summoned from the bench with GU trailing 16-11. Within 90 seconds, he had an assist and a layup to put the Zags on top for the first time, 17-16.
Cook drew a charging foul on Colbey Ross, sending Pepperdine’s standout point guard to the bench with his second foul. Then it was another Cook layup, a steal and left-handed dunk and back-to-back 3-pointers as the lead grew to 36-21 and the Zags were on their way to another blowout victory.
“Aaron came in and really opened up the game,” said GU head coach Mark Few, whose team has won 41 straight over Pepperdine dating to 2002. “He hit some 3s. I think their plan was to play off him a little bit and he made them pay for that. Of all our guys, he did probably the best job guarding Colbey.”
Few had similar remarks after Cook’s defense on Ross in the Zags’ 95-70 win in Spokane on Jan. 14. Cook came up big with eight points and strong defensive work as GU rallied past Saint Mary’s 73-59 on Jan. 16.
Cook added some offensive punch against the Waves in the rematch. He finished with a season-high 15 points, which just happened to be his scoring average last year at Southern Illinois before his season was cut short with a broken hand.
“My last role was kind being a facilitator and scorer. Here it’s not so much that role,” Cook said. “But whenever I get my opportunities, I’m definitely going to take them.”
Ross and forward Kessler Edwards trigger Pepperdine’s offense and both were off to fast starts as the Waves took a 16-7 lead. The largest deficit GU has faced this season was 10 points against Saint Mary’s. The nine-point margin shared the second largest with West Virginia.
Cook and the Zags raced past the Waves in a matter of minutes, fueled by an adhesive defense that created turnovers and buckets at the other end. Pepperdine (7-8, 3-3 West Coast Conference) managed two field goals and one free throw in a span of 8 minutes and 25 seconds.
Ross put up good stats – 16 points and seven assists – but he made just 5 of 13 shots and committed seven turnovers. He had nine points, seven assists and six turnovers in the first meeting.
“The biggest thing is just not fouling him,” Cook said. “He’s really good at getting into your body and selling the foul.
“They told me whenever he drives he’s going to try to jump into you, so I have to get my hands up. Other than that, it’s really just about staying in front of him, pressuring him a little bit and reading what he’s going to do next. That’s why as a team we did so well guarding him.”
Edwards scored 11 points, seven below his average.
“In the first half, our defense really got us going,” Few said. “Pepperdine got after us a little bit, but then our defense started making some plays and making it really tough, which allowed us to get out in transition.”
The Zags (17-0, 8-0) put up some of their best numbers of the season, which isn’t easy to do with the bar set high by an offense that’s tops nationally in scoring and field-goal percentage.
Gonzaga made 85.3% of its attempts inside the arc and shot a fraction under 60% overall. Andrew Nembhard had eight assists, two nights after posting 10 against San Diego.
Six Zags hit double digits, led by Drew Timme’s 19, Nembhard’s 17 and Corey Kispert’s 16. Kispert drilled three 3-pointers to move past John Rillie into seventh place on GU’s all-time list with 232.
Gonzaga is scheduled to entertain Loyola Marymount on Thursday, but the Lions postponed Saturday’s game against San Diego due to a positive COVID-19 test in their program. The Zags’ game vs. Santa Clara on Saturday has been postponed with the Broncos on a COVID-19 pause.