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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga rewind: Late-game adjustments slow Alabama’s Brandon Miller, Zags control turnover margin

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few gives directions to players on the court during the first half of a NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec.17, 2022, in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Designed to limit Gonzaga’s attempts from the 3-point line and eliminate high-percentage opportunities in the low post, Alabama’s defensive strategy gave the Bulldogs more than a few quality looks 5 to 15 feet away from the basket on Saturday afternoon.

The Zags didn’t waste those chances, making 62% of their 2-point attempts in a 100-90 win over the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide at the Legacy Center in Birmingham.

Drew Timme backed down Alabama’s frontcourt players and occasionally split between them to convert at the hoop, but the senior forward also scored a handful of his team-high 29 points on midrange floaters. That prompted a reporter to ask Timme about the trademark celebration that usually follows those shots.

Timme brushes his fingers through his mustache when he throws down a dunk. He raises both hands to his face, creating circles with his fingers to mimic a pair of goggles, when he dishes out a highlight pass.

Floaters prompt a completely different celebration : Timme sticks both arms out and flaps his hands while backpedaling down the court on defense.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few interrupted a question seeking more information about the celebration before Timme had the chance to explain.

“Let’s not encourage that,” Few said.

The All-American forward went on to explain, “On the team when you hit your floater, you’ve got your floaties, you’ve got to stay afloat out there. We don’t like to drown out here.”

Few chimed back in, ribbing the reporter for encouraging Timme’s behavior: “You’re like the uncle that comes over to the house and encourages the kids to stay up late.”

The Zags were all smiles and laughs after beating the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide in front of a pro-Bama crowd at Legacy Center, improving their record to 10-3.

In our Gonzaga-Alabama rewind, we look at the Bulldogs’ late defense on freshman scoring machine Brandon Miller, how GU took control of the turnover column and an offensive stretch for Timme that’s been as good as any during his career.

Turning the Miller faucet off

Gonzaga’s defensive strategy on Brandon Miller was ineffective through the first 35 minutes and highly effective through the final five minutes of Saturday’s game.

Miller single-handedly carried the Crimson Tide through a second half where Gonzaga missed just seven shots, connecting on 74% from the field and 66% from the 3-point line. He had 26 of Alabama’s 48 points after halftime and went on an individual tear, making 10 shots over 13 minutes, 38 seconds in the second half.

The Bulldogs cut off Alabama’s primary scoring supply with more than five minutes left, though, and held on to a three-possession lead until the final buzzer.

“If you saw, we mixed up some things on him there at the end and that helped,” Few said. “We just kept talking about, there was a couple things we were having some success with at the offensive end and we wanted to just keep going to those. On the other end, we were changing our coverages on him, we were limiting his touches, but Nate (Oats) runs a lot of good stuff and they back cut, pin down on him, do a ball screen and finally we just started trapping him, and I think that was probably the best thing we did on him all night.”

Miller reached the 36-point threshold on a jumper with 5:38 remaining but the talented freshman committed a pair of turnovers and missed two 3-pointers in the closing minutes. Malachi Smith and Anton Watson, who had the most success guarding Miller – relative success, that is – each stole the ball from the projected NBA lottery pick late in the game.

“It was tough guarding him,” Watson said. “He’s definitely a talented player, and he kind of started to heat up. That’s when it kind of got tough. It was tough guarding him, but I think we did a good job switching and trying to get physical with him.”

Few indicated Miller’s success, more often than not, was a byproduct of the freshman’s impressive shot-making rather than an indictment on Gonzaga’s defense.

“Believe it or not, I thought we defended properly and obviously Miller just hit some incredible shots and tough shots,” he said. “But I thought we did a good job for the most part of making them tough ones.”

Zags control turnover margin

Seasonlong turnover issues followed both teams into the matchup but impacted only one of them once the action started.

Gonzaga controlled the turnover margin in a manner the Bulldogs hadn’t all season, forcing 21 turnovers and committing just nine themselves in a game that featured 163 offensive possessions. At plus-12, Gonzaga posted its best turnover margin of the season, beating Monday’s plus-9 against Northern Illinois.

“That’s a really, really big step for us,” Few said. “When we’re not turning the ball over, we’re a very, very efficient team. … That stat is really standing out, so we talked about it all week, and these guys did a good job executing it in a really, really high-possession game.”

In Gonzaga’s first nine games, the Bulldogs were committing 14.2 turnovers and committed at least 18 on four occasions. They’ve shaved their season average to 12.9 after committing only 27 turnovers the last three games.

Timme, who’s been the focal point of every opponent scouting report this season, commands more attention than any other player on the floor, and it’s led to a higher turnover average for the senior forward. But outside of Timme, who had six turnovers, no other Zag committed more than one, and point guard Nolan Hickman made it through the game without a turnover for the fourth time this season.

“Obviously it was a good pace to that game against an athletic team that could get out and pressure you,” Few said. “They were up into our guards at 50 feet here, so that was probably as big a key for us as anything.”

Timme’s latest takeover

A Gonzaga fan from Michigan traveled south for Saturday’s game, sitting two rows behind Alabama’s bench with a handcrafted “Timme Time” T-shirt and homemade quilt that read “Came all the way from MI for the FDE.”

The “FDE” is the “Full Drew Experience” and Alabama couldn’t do much to prevent it from happening when Timme was on the floor, conceding 29 points and 10 rebounds to the Gonzaga star who’s been one of the most productive players in the country over the last two weeks.

Timme’s 29 points came on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and 5 of 8 from the free throw line. He was responsible for 66% of Gonzaga’s turnovers but also dished out four assists, improving his season average to 3.2 per game.

“I would just say he’s a great player, we’ve just got to find ways to slow him down,” Alabama freshman guard Jaden Bradley said. “We’re not going to completely stop him, but find ways to make him struggle.”

Timme’s four-game stretch, which includes 29 points against Alabama, 26 against Northern Illinois, 22 against Washington and 29 against Kent State, has been the most productive of his career at Gonzaga. He’s averaged 26.5 points while leading the Bulldogs to a 4-0 record in those games.

The Dallas native averaged 23 ppg in the last four games of the 2021-22 season, averaged 25.7 ppg during a four-game stretch in West Coast Conference play last year and averaged 25 ppg in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.