LAS VEGAS – Julian Strawther once scored 48 points at the Orleans Arena while playing against a Mayfair High School team headlined by current Houston Rocket Josh Christopher.
But the night didn’t end in victory, let alone with Strawther standing on top a ladder, cutting a piece of the net and tying it onto a fresh black conference championship hat before wading through confetti with teammates.
So it’s no wonder which Orleans memory Strawther native prefers more – a near 50-point outing in a 71-68 loss at the Tarkanian High School Classic, or scoring 16 efficient points for No. 1 Gonzaga in an 82-69 victory over Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game on Tuesday night.
“It was a cool game for sure, but I didn’t get the win that night,” Strawther said. “Nothing compares to being able to cut down a net in front of my friends and family, so this is way better for sure.”
An early scoring flurry from the sophomore wing helped top-seeded Gonzaga establish a double-digit lead in the first half against second-seeded Saint Mary’s. With the victory already in hand, Strawther scored the final point of the title game from the free-throw line – a fitting way for the Las Vegas native to go out with nearly 30 family members and friends in attendance.
“Last year they got to (win the title), but we weren’t able to be here because of COVID,” father Lee Strawther said. “This is just a huge treat for everybody to get to see it, witness it live and we’re just thankful for the opportunity.”
Averaging 12.2 points per game for Gonzaga this season, Strawther didn’t make a shot in the Bulldogs’ semifinal win over San Francisco, going 0 for 3 from the field – his first game without a field goal all season – and scored all five of his points from the line.
Gonzaga’s offense is designed to find its top scorers when they’re open, so Strawther trusted he’d not only have more opportunities in the title game, but see more shots fall through the net. He’d reached double figures in eight of his previous 11 games and had 25 combined points in GU’s regular-season meetings with Saint Mary’s.
Most of the opportunities for Strawther came in the first half, when the second-year player scored 13 points, made 4 of 5 shots from the field and knocked down all three of his 3-point attempts.
“I never really force too much. I always let the game come to me, so I wasn’t going to come out here and force anything, that’s what I told myself pregame,” Strawther said. “Just be you, play your game and these guys found me early, got me going and they don’t care if I miss 100 shots the day before, they’re going to keep on finding me. That’s why I love them.”
Gonzaga’s Mark Few said coaches told Strawther not to change his approach and “do what he usually does.”
“He’s played really, really well down here and last night, that wasn’t him,” Few said. “It shows his mental toughness to be able to come out in a bigger game like this. It’s tough to get rhythm against (Saint Mary’s), but he really kept us in it in this first half, as did Anton (Watson).”
The Bulldogs’ 2021-22 schedule served up five opportunities for Strawther to shine in his hometown. He did that in at least four of those, scoring 15, 12 and 20 points in nonconference games against Central Michigan, UCLA and Duke played at T-Mobile Arena in late November.
“I think in warm-ups I was pretty short, so it’s one of those things where I think my first shot came on a pin down, it all happened so fast, but I was able to catch it in rhythm and see that first one go down,” Strawther said. “That’s all I need for me is to see one go down.”
Wearing a matching championship shirt and hat, Strawther posed for a photo with his father, sisters Paris and Paige, as well as nephew Ace. Strawther acknowledged the photos were missing one family member, his mother Lourdes, who died from breast cancer when the Gonzaga player was a child.
“I know she’s here, though, I know she’s watching over. I know she’s here right now on my shoulder,” Strawther said. “So I love her to death and I know she’s always watching.”
Lee Strawther offered similar sentiments: “She’s here in this arena, trust me, and she’s looking forward to the next step.”
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