Gonzaga didn’t score 100-plus points. The Zags didn’t have another 60-point first half. They didn’t come close to those flashy numbers that led to blowout wins in their first three West Coast Conference games.
What the top-ranked Zags did do was climb out of their first double-digit deficit at home this season, overcome a rough first half from All-American Drew Timme and fend off a spirited challenge from San Francisco in front of 6,000 Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Chet Holmgren had perhaps the best game of his freshman season with 22 points and nine rebounds, and Timme bounced back with a strong closing half to lead Gonzaga to a hard-fought 78-62 victory.
Gonzaga (15-2, 4-0 WCC) remains the only unbeaten in the conference. San Francisco, which came in No. 34 in the NET rankings, showed why it should be a factor in the conference race.
The experienced Dons (15-4, 2-2), led by fifth-year senior guard Jamaree Bouyea, gave Gonzaga fits at both ends of the court before the Zags put together a dominating second half to earn their 25th straight conference win and 62nd straight home victory, both tops in the nation.
Gonzaga broke away from a tie with an 18-2 spurt to take a 56-40 lead with 10:36 remaining. The Dons didn’t go away, but the Zags maintained a double-digit advantage the rest of the way.
“The second-half defense was great all the way down to 2½-minute mark when they hit a couple 3s on us,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I thought it was the key to the game.
“The offense didn’t feel right. We missed lot of chippies. Drew, we just take it for granted he makes all those and tonight he wasn’t, but we still hung in there and were able to find our way to almost 80 points. But it was definitely our defense that carried us.”
Holmgren and Timme both had dunks to put Gonzaga on top 44-38. After a Bouyea layup, the Zags scored the next 12 points. Anton Watson, big off the bench again with 11 points and five rebounds, hit a pair of free throws and Holmgren added five quick points.
While GU wasn’t as sharp on offense as it has been most of the season, its defense improved as the game progressed. The Dons came out hot, but their field-goal percentage faded to 41.9% by halftime and 30% in final 20 minutes.
“It just came down to making adjustments,” said Holmgren, who blocked four shots. “We had a plan for guarding their ball screens, and I didn’t come out executing it perfectly. Once I got adjusted and figured out how to play it within our plan, it got really difficult for them to score at the rim.”
Timme scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half and he finished with four assists. He made 8 of 12 second-half shots after going 1 of 8 in the opening half. Andrew Nembhard battled first-half foul trouble, but finished with 10 points, seven assists, four rebounds and three steals.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” Timme said. “I was struggling in the first half, Andrew had foul trouble and there was no drop off. Other people just stepped up. Chet was huge for us. He was scoring the ball, defending, blocking shots. He was doing it all. That’s what we go by – next man up.”
San Francisco couldn’t have asked for a better start, putting Gonzaga in a 15-4 hole after a Bouyea 3-pointer with 12:55 remaining. The Zags’ largest deficit in a home game this season was 7-0 vs. BYU, but they quickly recovered to lead 61-49 at half.
“It’s uncomfortable (being down by 11), but it happens,” Few said. “As I told them, we’re not going to score 115 every night and we’re not going to just blow everybody out. In that regard, it was good to have to grind a little bit.”
Gonzaga’s offense started clicking about midway through the half and it was well-timed with a stretch of suffocating defense. USF went scoreless for roughly 5 minutes and the Zags rattled off 12 unanswered points.
Nembhard opened the run with a three-point play. Holmgren’s corner 3-pointers gave Gonzaga its first lead and the 7-footer added a pair of free throws to put the Zags on top 21-17.
Then it was the Zags’ turn for a dry spell, but USF didn’t take full advantage. The Dons moved in front 23-21, but Julian Strawther’s 3-pointer gave Gonzaga its first points in 4:40.
The Zags led 36-30 after Holmgren’s second 3-pointer, but Bouyea beat the shot clock buzzer with a 3 to cut GU’s advantage to three at half.
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