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Dave Boling: Leading by a whisker in its NCAA Tournament opener, Gonzaga finally cut loose behind All-American Drew Timme

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

PORTLAND – Drew Timme, All-American.

Timme proved himself entirely worthy of the accolade Thursday in Gonzaga’s 93-72 NCAA Tournament first-round win over Georgia State. More worthy than ever, in fact.

That title isn’t simply a matter of statistics – points and rebounds, etc. Timme has those, of course. But to be truly worthy, it’s a matter of being great in those moments when your team is desperate for game-saving greatness from its best player.

No. 16 seed Georgia State trailed the top-seeded Zags by only two at halftime, with GU’s offense discombobulated and the free-throw shooting an embarrassing 47.4%. The Panthers clawed to a two-point lead well into the second half.

Georgia State was tough, scrappy and increasingly dangerous as it was allowed to breathe in deeply the scent of a national-headline upset. As well as Georgia State was playing, a loss still would be beyond humbling for the No. 1-ranked Zags.

Timme scored 10 points in the first 20 minutes, but missed four field goals and five free throws. Halftime was a period of self-examination; he said later that he was inspired by the support and encouragement of his teammates. “I just get a confidence boost when guys have your back like that even when you’re struggling,” Timme said.

Timme dug deep and emerged a renewed player.

Unleashing a series of head-spinning post moves, Timme pumped in 12 points in the first 7½ minutes of the second half and finished with 32 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman Chet Holmgren got on board, too, adding 19 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots.

The charismatic Timme has deeply ingratiated himself with the Zag fan base. He plays with such obvious joy, smoothing off his famed mustache after a big play, and sometimes flexing after a powerful play under the basket. His flexes, I suspect, are mostly for ironic effect, perhaps self-mocking, as the biceps don’t seem to swell much during the pose.

So often, Timme seems chill, chatting with opponents, smiling and laughing during the game. “I’m just a kid playing a game,” he has told reporters.

But Thursday, he revealed his real strength – a fierce inner determination – lifting the Zags to a comfortable lead that killed the Panthers’ upset bid.

If we dare say that this game was destined to be a close shave, it would segue perfectly to one of Drew Timme’s television commercials for a national razor company. “Whether I’m driving the lane or choosing my next facial hair style, I’m all about being myself … have you seen my super smooth chin?”

As Timme failed to convert free throws in the first half, I began to wonder whether he needed to spend more time practicing free throws than doing commercials.

I truly love that college players are now getting the chance to cash in on their image and likeness. It was long overdue. But it does open the players to second-guessing. Maybe players can spread themselves a little thin, or lose focus.

Those seem like fair questions amid the new collegiate athletic economies.

But Timme not only quelled such criticism, I’m hoping his performance leads to a huge sales surge by those companies he endorses.

Timme and Holmgren clicked so well in the second half, assisted ably by guard Andrew Nembhard (11 assists), that the first-half struggles may be forgotten as the Zags continue on a lengthy tournament path.

In a very cool moment, Timme left the game once the win was in hand, and before he sat, did a gentle chest-bump with coach Mark Few, who stands a foot shorter. The two stood close, their words obscured by the cheering of fans. But the nature of it was obvious: Few was proud of how his All-American center had answered the challenge of this game.

Several times, Few pointed a finger at Timme’s chest, in the region of his heart. Timme nodded and smiled, and patted Few on the head.

It was very Timme, comical and endearing. In fact, it would make a good commercial for the relationships that make college basketball so wonderful.