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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga-Baylor rewind: Anton Watson picks up slack for Bulldogs’ frontcourt in narrow loss

Dec. 3, 2022 Updated Sat., Dec. 3, 2022 at 9:15 p.m.

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson, who finished with 13 points and a team-high 13 rebounds, dunks against Baylor during the second half of Friday’s Peacock Classic at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Baylor topped the Zags 64-63.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Anton Watson, who finished with 13 points and a team-high 13 rebounds, dunks against Baylor during the second half of Friday’s Peacock Classic at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Baylor topped the Zags 64-63. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Gonzaga’s upcoming schedule doesn’t necessarily qualify as easy, as the Bulldogs prepare to host Kent State and Washington teams that sit inside the top 107 of KenPom’s rankings, but Friday’s 64-63 loss to Baylor signified the end of a seven-game stretch that’s been as demanding as any in the country to open the 2022-23 season.

The nonconference schedule has already pitted Gonzaga against five teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, including a road test at No. 2 Texas, a second-round Phil Knight Legacy matchup with No. 5 Purdue and Friday’s neutral-site against No. 6 Baylor. Xavier, Gonzaga’s final opponent in Portland, has received Top 25 votes this season.

Gonzaga’s strength of schedule to this point ranks No. 4 in the country, per KenPom, and No. 1 among Top 25 teams.

“Hey, they’re hard. Man, this is a really, really hard schedule,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the Baylor loss. “And it’s hard because getting 18- to 22-year-olds emotionally fired up, because if you’re not emotionally fired up, you have no chance to play in these games. It’s hard night after night after night.

“So we’re learning that and I thought we competed great tonight, and I thought both teams competed great because it wasn’t a perfect game and it wasn’t a pretty game and anybody could compete when your shots are going and you’re competing good.”

Gonzaga’s 5-3 record is the program’s worst to start a season since 2010-11, but it also requires an asterisk. Few has routinely called the nonconference slate the toughest he’s assembled in 23 years at Gonzaga. Two of the Bulldogs’ opponents, Texas and Purdue, have vastly outperformed preseason expectations.

Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team faced its third Top 25 foe on Friday, outlined why both teams will be better off for playing in the Peacock Classic – even though one was guaranteed to walk out with its third loss.

“It’s great because we get a real quality win,” Drew said, “but it doesn’t hurt them because there was no loser tonight. There was no bad loss and your teams improve.”

The Bulldogs were nearly winners at the Sanford Pentagon, letting a seven-point lead slip with 1:41 to play in Friday’s game. In this edition of the rewind, we focus on Anton Watson’s productive outing and the turnover issues that came back to haunt the Bulldogs in South Dakota.

“I’m super, super proud of our squad, man,” Few said. “We just needed to close it out. We just needed a basket at the end and not give up a 3.”

The Watson effect

With frontcourt mate Drew Timme overwhelmed by Baylor’s aggressive double teams – and the occasional triple team – Watson stepped up, particularly in the second half, to give the Zags a big lift in the paint.

Watson finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, setting a career high on the boards while recording the fourth double-double of his collegiate career.

The Gonzaga Prep product may not have been one of the Bulldogs scouted heavily by Drew’s staff two years ago, but Watson garnered praise from Drew, whose Baylor team struggled to keep him off the glass for the majority of his 32 minutes on the floor.

“I think you look at both of our programs, why our programs are good is players get better and he’s a perfect example of that,” Drew said of Watson. “Sometimes he doesn’t score as much, but he does everything else. Today he was efficient, had six offensive rebounds, 5 for 8 from the field, but he’s a glue guy. Any toughness you need, he’s a winner so big fan of his.”

Six of Watson’s 13 rebounds came on the offensive glass and the 6-foot-8 forward created second-chance opportunities on three consecutive possessions early in the second half.

On the first of those, Watson hustled to save a loose ball from going out of bounds. The ball eventually found Nolan Hickman at the top of the arc and the point guard fired a bullet pass inside to Watson for an open dunk. Watson rebounded Timme’s miss on the next possession and converted a layup to give Gonzaga a 41-40 lead.

“I just kind of realized it was going to be a physical game since the beginning,” Watson said. “Every time we played Baylor, in the national championship, they kind of punched us in the face first, and one thing I felt I could do well was get on the offensive glass, get on the defensive glass and that was kind of one of my main goals in this game.”

Watson was efficient from the field, dominant on the boards and logged the top plus/minus among Gonzaga’s starters, but also missed five free throws in a game the Bulldogs shot just 62% from the line.

Turnovers rear their head

Gonzaga’s turnover count in the first four games of the season: 14, 18, 20, 18. In the three games that followed: 11, seven, 13.

During a four-day stay at the Phil Knight Legacy, the Bulldogs seemed to correct the ball security issues that slowed their usually-dynamic offense through the first two weeks of the season. As a byproduct, Gonzaga’s assist numbers skyrocketed. The Bulldogs manufactured a season-high 24 against Portland State and nearly reached that total again with 23 assists in the PK85 finale against Xavier.

On Friday against Baylor, the Bulldogs reverted to the team that’s struggled to string clean possessions together, committing 18 turnovers and just 12 assists. It was the fourth time in eight games this season Gonzaga finished with more turnovers than assists – something that happened only three times in 32 games last season.

Friday’s game was played at a high pace and both teams made unadvised passes while searching for a quick basket. Baylor had 14 turnovers and just eight assists.

“I think the game just got sped up a little bit and that was one reason,” Watson said. “I had some turnovers, too, but the whole flow of the game was sped up and sometimes we turned it over when we should’ve just kind of slowed it down and ran our offense.”

Baylor settled in when it mattered, while Gonzaga coughed the ball up multiple times in the game’s most critical moments. Inside the final 34 seconds, Gonzaga committed two turnovers and got just one look at the basket, on Rasir Bolton’s contested layup at the buzzer.

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