There were several indications Monday night that Gonzaga might experience a letdown after Friday’s narrow loss to Duke.
The Zags apparently weren’t sharp during their walk-through earlier Monday. Freshman forward Kaden Perry, who missed part of his senior season at Battle Ground High with a back injury, was helped off the court in warmups and sat out the game with back spasms.
And Monday’s home contest with Tarleton State, a 30-point underdog, fell between the highly anticipated top-five showdown vs. Duke in Las Vegas and the return of the Battle in Seattle against No. 16 Alabama on Saturday.
The third-ranked Zags were lethargic from the opening tip, turning it twice and missing a layup and two free throws before scoring. It didn’t get much better for the third-ranked Zags until the final five minutes when they finally opened up a little breathing room and held off the scrappy Texans 64-55.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few was aware of those aforementioned factors but gave full credit to the visitors for keeping this one tight deep into the second half.
“That’s why you see a lot of these clubs when you come back, I know we weren’t on an exotic island, but we were in Vegas for basically a week … and you guys saw those games,” he said. “There was a lot extended in those games.
“You come back and you see the name of a school that you don’t recognize, but you get warned. I don’t even know if that was a factor, it was just Tarleton was really good and tough to run stuff against. But we were able to figure it out and get our way through it.”
Tarleton State (1-6) has done roughly the same thing to several opponents on its arduous schedule. The Texans limit possessions by draining time off the shot clock. Defensively, they hound foes into turnovers with pressure, speed and quick hands.
The Texans, who are in the second season of a four-year transition period to Division I, kept it close against Stanford, Wichita State and No. 20 Michigan before falling by points spreads of 12, 14 and 11.
The Zags led most of the way, but their offense was never in rhythm. The main problem was turnovers, a major issue in the Duke loss, and errant shooting.
Gonzaga (7-1) made just 8 of 23 shots, including 1 of 9 beyond the 3-point line, and 9 of 16 free throws in the opening half. The Zags went 7 minutes , 30 seconds between field goals before freshman Chet Holmgren scored in the lane with 43 seconds left.
They had two first-half assists and nine turnovers and were fortunate to lead 26-25 at the break.
“They just played (with) super high energy, tried to pressure us out of our sets and get us out of what we do,” Holmgren said. “What won us that game was when we settled down, got back to what we do best. It was definitely something to learn from and continue to get better with.”
The second half was more of the same with the Texans, second-year members of the Western Athletic Conference, taking a 30-28 lead. Gonzaga went in front for good, 46-43, on Nolan Hickman’s 3-pointer.
Rasir Bolton, who finished with 17 points, and Holmgren, who added 15 points and nine rebounds, helped GU create some separation.
Holmgren scored inside and added a putback basket to give Gonzaga a 55-47 lead. Bolton had two straight dunks, the second after a rare Texans turnover boosted GU’s lead to 59-49 with 2:20 remaining.
“Everybody has tough games like that,” Bolton said. “They’re a tough team so we just had to stick one out to get one tonight.”
Gonzaga finished with 16 turnovers – leading to Tarleton State’s 19-11 edge in points off turnovers – and just nine assists. The Texans committed only eight turnovers. They made just 37.5% from the field. Both teams misfired on 3-pointers: GU was 4 of 19, Tarleton State finished 5 of 17.
“All along, I think our defense allowed us to stay in it when our offense wasn’t clicking at all,” Few said.
Tarleton State battled GU inside, despite facing major size mismatches – 6-foot-4 guard Shamir Bogues spend most the game defending 7-foot Holmgren or 6-10 player of the year candidate Drew Timme.
“They didn’t really have a true big man, they just played lot of guards, fronted the post and made us work for everything really,” Holmgren said. “We just have to settle down, and like Rasir said, when you’re not shooting the 3-ball well, sometimes that can shrink the court a little bit.”
GU won the boards 43-27 and had a 36-24 edge in paint points.
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