If this was Andrew Nembhard’s and Rasir Bolton’s last games at the McCarthey Athletic Center, they went out with one of their finest performances this season.
Good thing, and good thing Drew Timme had another big scoring night against Santa Clara as the Zags avoided a Senior Night slip-up by grinding out an 81-69 victory Saturday in front of a packed house of 6,000, including NBA Zags Jalen Suggs, Killian Tillie and Kelly Olynyk.
Nembhard and Bolton combined for 39 points, including several key buckets in the final 5 minutes when the Zags finally gained comfortable separation from Santa Clara.
“Definitely wanted to leave with a bang and excited we got it done in that type of way,” said Nembhard, who added eight assists. “I’m super happy for Rasir, he’s been playing amazing. He’s a huge piece for us.”
Nembhard and Bolton were joined in the starting lineup by fellow seniors Matthew Lang and Will Graves. Nembhard and Bolton both have an option of an additional COVID season. Bolton said earlier this week he’ll make a decision later.
“I’m not really sure,” Nembhard said of his plans.
This one was work from start to finish as Gonzaga overcame a season-low field-goal percentage (40.3) by holding down the Broncos for most of the contest.
“That’s a really, really good offensive team and they can score from a bunch of different spots,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I don’t know if we were ever really comfortable at either end, but the guys had to tough it out.
“Again, our defense has been carrying us a lot in this stretch. Everybody talks about our offense but our defense has gone from probably 50th to sixth or seventh, and that was with some mistakes tonight.”
The Zags extended several streaks, including their 67th consecutive home win, 33rd straight West Coast Conference victory – the last 30 by double-digit margins.
Top-ranked Gonzaga (23-2, 12-0 West Coast Conference) wrapped up an outright conference championship. The Zags have won 10 in a row, including nine solo and one shared (2016). Players cut the nets down after the hard-fought win and they have designs on more net-trimming ceremonies in the post season.
“This conference is the toughest it’s ever been,” Timme said. “What do we have, four teams in the tournament or if not, close to it. There’s a lot of jokes about our conference and how it’s not good enough. Everyone has something to say about us for some reason, but our conference is tough. We get a bunch of old guys, smart teams that have been around and guys that transfer in. We had to grind and work hard just like every other team in America.”
Timme torched the Broncos (18-10, 8-5) for 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting last month in Santa Clara. It wasn’t nearly as easy this time around, but the 6-foot-10 junior battled for 23 hard-earned points and pulled down nine rebounds. Three of those were offensive boards and he made putbacks each time.
“They played fast, they’re a physical team and we just weren’t hitting some open shots,” Timme said. “You can’t hit 60 percent every night unfortunately. Give them credit for their defense. We battled through and took care of business down the stretch.”
Gonzaga opened up a 38-22 lead late in the first half, but the Broncos cut the deficit to 10 by halftime. Santa Clara, fueled by PJ Pipes’ season-high 27 points, closed within 59-53 on Pipes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. Timme, Nembhard and Bolton guided the Zags to the finish line.
“Andrew carries a heavy load for us,” Few said. “He’s just so steady and so smart. He’s a complete player, great defensive player and obviously a great offensive player. Rasir hit some big 3s for us, had some big finishes. He’s just been an awesome addition to this team.”
Nembhard drained five 3s and Bolton added three. The Broncos chose to sag off Gonzaga on the perimeter and the Zags finished 12 of 35 on 3s.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga did a nice job defensively on Jalen Williams, who scored 15 points, but was just 4 of 12 from the field. He came in averaging nearly 18 points per game.
Josip Vrankic, the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.1 points, had two early buckets but finished with only six points on 3-of-10 shooting. Keshawn Justice, who averages 13.6 points, finished with one field goal and five points.
“Pipes has been on a roll,” Few said. “He’s a tough guard and most of the shots he took were tough ones. We did a nice job on Justice and I thought we made most of Williams’ shots tough ones.”
The Zags close the regular season on the road against San Francisco on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday.
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