MALIBU, Calif. – Few coaches in the country, or in the West Coast Conference for that matter, are more familiar with Gonzaga than Lorenzo Romar.
That hasn’t necessarily been a positive thing for Pepperdine’s fourth-year coach. Romar went 3-3 against Gonzaga during his first stint at Pepperdine from 1996-99; was 1-7 against the Bulldogs while coaching at the University of Washington; and, after absorbing an 86-66 loss to the country’s top-ranked team on Wednesday at Firestone Fieldhouse, the 63-year-old is 0-8 against the Zags since his second stint with the Waves started in 2018-19.
Romar has seen many iterations of Gonzaga and he’s one of just two coaches in the country - along with BYU’s Mark Pope - to have seen the 2021-22 version twice.
“They could win the whole thing,” Romar said. “They have size, they have scoring ability, they can guard. (Chet) Holmgren’s obviously really good, (Drew) Timme could be player of the year, they have outstanding perimeter players.”
Below are three takeaways from GU’s 43rd consecutive victory against Pepperdine.
Hounding the boards
With a 7-foot frame , Chet Holmgren often doesn’t have to do much work to swallow up most of the rebounds in his general vicinity.
In recent weeks, however, Gonzaga coaches have challenged the freshman, who’d only hit double-digit rebounds in five of his first 18 games, to work harder and smarter on the glass. Holmgren’s reaping the rewards of that. The Minnesota native has pulled down at least 10 rebounds in five of GU’s past six games, including 17-rebound games against BYU and Pepperdine.
Holmgren’s averaging 9.6 rebounds in all games and 11 in WCC play, ranking second in the conference behind USF’s Yauhen Massalski.
Few indicated the freshman’s improvement is twofold. Holmgren’s been more aggressive on the glass, but he’s also done a better job of securing the rebounds he gets a hand on.
“I’m glad you noticed that, because I think he is (rebounding better),” Few said. “These last three, four games, he’s really starting to go up and not only pursue the ball, but he was having a heckuva time earlier in the year hanging onto it after he got it. I think for the most part he’s been getting two hands on it and holding onto it.”
The 17 rebounds were part of another Holmgren-like stat line at Pepperdine. He had his fifth double-double in six games, scoring 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field and 2 of 5 from beyond the arc. He also contributed four blocked shots to bring his season total to 80.
In some ways, Holmgren’s feats continue to surprise fans who’ve followed the Zags his freshman season, but also GU teammates who see him every day in practice.
“A little bit, a little bit, just because he’s getting more comfortable and more confident with his game and he’s not really forcing it,” Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard said. “Those 18 (points) probably just came to him, weren’t really the loudest buckets, but just came and found his spots and knocked down the shots wherever they were. Impacts the game in so many different ways with rebounding and blocking shots.
“He’s a very useful tool for us, so love to see his growth for sure.”
Waves have their way
After Gonzaga used a closing 8-0 run to finish off Saint Mary’s 74-58 last Saturday, Few suggested the Zags would have to get comfortable playing in tight games, anticipating more of them down the stretch of the regular season, as opposed to the 30-point blowouts that became the norm early in WCC play.
Few’s prediction has held up after one game.
GU’s 20-point win wasn’t as routine as it may have looked on paper. Pepperdine showed the resolve few WCC teams have when falling into a 20-point hole against the Zags, rallying back in the second half to make it an eight-point game with 12:58 to play.
“We wanted to take good shots and get back on defense. We only sent one guy to the glass and got everybody else back on defense,” Romar said. “That didn’t work at first because they scored 14 points in transition in the first half. But the second half, it was four. We wanted to take care of the ball and we only had nine turnovers. So we did a good job that way.”
Over a scoreless stretch that lasted more than 3 minutes, Gonzaga turned the ball over twice, missed consecutive shots inside the 3-point line and committed five fouls.
Two of those fouls came on consecutive 3-point attempts, sending Pepperdine’s Houston Mallette to the line for six free throws, four of which he hit.
Few was pleased with the way his team overcame adversity in the second half, but lamented the defensive mistakes that allowed Pepperdine to claw back into the game.
When asked if it can be healthy for his team to encounter turbulence, the coach said, “Yes and no.”
“You wish it wasn’t because of defensive errors where we kind of missed a switch or something like that, but sure, it’s good to be able to have teams make run at you and withstand them and have an answer,” he said. “But I’d like to see us play a little better, especially turning the ball over a little bit down the stretch there also.”
Few attributed some of the defensive miscues to the crowd noise pinging off the walls at Firestone Fieldhouse, especially during the early stages of Pepperdine’s 10-0 run. The Waves’ home gym is the smallest venue in the WCC, with a capacity of 3,104.
“They got going in there and obviously doing that run they were inspiring the home team,” he said, “and I think we didn’t do a great job communicating a couple of our coverages and that was probably because the noise in the building.”
Houston heats up
At least three Gonzaga players – Holmgren, Timme and Nembhard – will have strong cases for All-WCC first-team consideration at the end of the regular season. Pepperdine’s Mallette is making a late-season push to join them on the 10-man team that will be released prior to the conference tournament.
Nobody in the WCC has scored at a higher clip than Mallette over the past two weeks. The freshman guard demonstrated again Wednesday why he could be one of the conference’s best shooters the next two or three years. Mallette scored 25 points to bump his WCC average to 14.6 per game – the highest average among freshman guards in the conference and second highest among all freshmen, only behind Holmgren’s 16.5 ppg.
“Oh, he’s going to be a heckuva player,” Few said. “He’s a legitimate – I noticed that the first time we played them. He’s someone who can really, really score the ball. He’s incredibly aggressive with how he does it. He’s got a tremendous amount of freedom, too. Those guys are hard to stop.”
Mallette has averaged 26.3 points over Pepperdine’s past three games and he’s scored at least 14 in five consecutive WCC contests.
The 6-5, 185-pound guard wasn’t particularly efficient against GU, making 8 of 23 from the field, but he showed a knack for getting to the free-throw line, making 7 of 10.
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