Time after time, Gonzaga has thumped seemingly overmatched nonconference opponents through the years at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
But not every time. There are several examples of an upstart underdog throwing a big scare at the Zags, even against some of the program’s best teams.
That was the case Monday when second-year Division I member Tarleton State, a 30-point underdog, made the home crowd squirm until the buzzer sounded on No. 3 Gonzaga’s uncomfortable 64-55 win. The Texans moved up 15 spots to No. 182 in KenPom’s ratings.
Tarleton State essentially repeated its performance from last Wednesday when it trailed by three points with 4 minutes left before losing at No. 20 Michigan 65-54.
Powerhouse programs aren’t immune to unexpected challenges on their home floor. No. 9 Kentucky trailed Division II Miles College by seven at half before rallying for a nine-point win in an exhibition game. Mercer, No. 206 in KenPom, led No. 10 Arkansas midway through the second half before falling 74-61.
Here’s a look at some of GU’s closest nonconference calls in the Kennel over the past six seasons and a couple of takeaways from the Tarleton State win.
The 2017 Zags engaged in a bruise-fest, leading by three with 8 minutes remaining before closing on a 16-1 run to defeat Akron 61-43. In fairness, the Zips were preseason Mid-American Conference favorites, so they weren’t to be confused with an opponent with a KenPom 300-plus ranking.
No. 8 Gonzaga handled Tennessee 86-76 in Knoxville in its next game. The Zags finished 37-2 after losing to North Carolina in the national championship.
The following season, North Dakota, led by Geno Crandall, nearly pulled off a huge upset, but No. 12 Gonzaga escaped 89-83 in overtime. UND was defending Big Sky Conference champions, but its roster was weakened by graduation and transfers. The Fighting Hawks eventually finished 12-20.
Crandall, who joined GU as a grad transfer the next season, scored 28 points, including a 3-pointer to tie it in regulation. The Zags scored the first 11 points in the extra session.
Gonzaga crushed IUPUI 101-71 in its next outing. The Zags lost to Florida State in the Sweet 16 and finished 32-5.
The 2020 Zags (31-2) were a lock for a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They opened the season with four wins by at least 30 points but had their hands full against UT Arlington.
No. 8 GU led by one at half and clawed out a 72-66 win. The visitors, who were 22-point underdogs, hit a flurry of 3s late to make it interesting after trailing 65-53. The Zags pounded Cal State Bakersfield 77-49 in their next game.
Last season, Gonzaga had one of college basketball’s finest offenses in decades and scoring wasn’t a problem in back-to-back games against Northwestern State.
GU cruised 95-57 in the first meeting and was rolling 43-17 at halftime in the rematch one night later. The Demons made 10 3s in the second half and scored 61 points, cutting the deficit to 11 before losing 95-78.
The Zags clobbered No. 16 Virginia 98-75 in the next contest. GU finished 31-1, the lone defeat against Baylor in the national championship.
Monday’s game certainly provided Gonzaga coach Mark Few with some talking points in practice leading up to Saturday’s game versus No. 16 Alabama at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.
Topping the list is taking care of the ball.
The Zags (7-1) are averaging 13 turnovers per game after committing 17 versus Duke and 16 versus Tarleton State. The Blue Devils outscored GU 23-2 in points off turnovers and the Texans held a 19-11 edge.
It’s been a team-wide issue. Andrew Nemhbard and Chet Holmgren both have committed a team-high 21 turnovers, followed by Drew Timme’s 19 and Anton Watson’s 13.
“Just with ballhandling, guys getting open and making crisp passes, things like that,” guard Rasir Bolton said of reducing turnovers. “We’re working as a team to bring that down.”
Finding the range
Gonzaga is shooting 33.3% behind the 3-point arc after two consecutive sub-30% efforts. The Zags have made just 10 of 40 (25%) in their past two games. They remain strong inside the arc at 47 of 73 (64.4%).
There hasn’t been much middle ground from deep with four games with percentages in the 20s, three in the upper 30s and a season-high 48% against Bellarmine.
“We always think the next one’s going in, but on a tough night like (Monday) we’d probably like to go inside a little bit, feed the big dogs down there, let them get going,” Bolton said. “So it’s a balance.”
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