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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Anton Watson’s double-double, defense on Oscar Tshiebwe help spark Gonzaga’s win

Nov. 20, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 20, 2022 at 9:31 p.m.

Anton Watson didn’t have the stat line of teammates Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton and Drew Timme, but nobody had a bigger impact on Gonzaga’s 88-72 win over No. 4 Kentucky.

Watson had the difficult task of defending Oscar Tshiebwe, the player of the year last season. Kentucky’s standout forward put together 20 points and 15 rebounds – which is basically a routine night for him – but Watson made Tshiebwe work for nearly every point and board.

Watson stripped the ball from Tshiebwe twice in a 90-second span, converting one of those steals into a short bank shot at the offensive end as Gonzaga built a comfortable lead in the first half. Watson intercepted an entry pass intended for Tshiebwe in the second half.

“Anton was phenomenal,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “If we can get that out of him in every night, we’re going to be just fine. He locked up with Oscar all night, did a great job.

“Every one of Oscar’s were tough. I mean, it’s surprising that he ended up with 20. That’s how good a player he is. But I thought Anton was not only phenomenal there, but also on the glass, and then also offensively. He was big-time for us. We leaned on him to bring the ball up the floor and handle their press.”

And the senior forward delivered the play of the night with a soaring, one-handed dunk that brought a record Spokane Arena crowd to its feet and gave Gonzaga 41-25 lead late in the half. Watson faked a handoff to a teammate, drove down the right side of the lane and rose over Tshiebwe for an emphatic finish.

“That was definitely up there for one of the loudest moments of my career,” junior wing Julian Strawther said. “It caught me by surprise. I know Anton can do it, but you don’t see it too often. The moment and time it happened during a run, it shocked me.”

Watson matched his season high with 10 points and he grabbed 10 boards. He was credited with two steals – it seemed like more – and a pair of assists. He played 37 minutes, a career high by nearly eight minutes.

“We took an L (loss) in our last game,” Watson said. “We were just trying to focus on the win, but obviously it’s in Spokane and I’m from Spokane. I’ve been planning on this game for a long time and thinking about it. It felt good to get the W.”

Watson probably could have boosted his rebounding total, but his priority was putting a body on the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Tshiebwe, who returned from knee surgery to play in Kentucky’s last three games.

Tshiebwe’s first rebound came nearly midway through the first half and Gonzaga on top 21-12. The Zags won the boards 39-29. Kentucky had a 12-11 edge in second-chance points, but they had far more opportunities with 42 missed shots compared to Gonzaga’s 24.

“Everything is going back to how Anton played,” said Strawther, who set a career high with 14 rebounds. “Our game plan was Anton was going to be locked up with Oscar all night, I need to fly in and grab boards. Anton just kind of cleared the way and I just went up and got them. All kudos to Anton.”

Tshiebwe was in foul trouble for much of the second half. He’s still shaking the rust after his knee injury and has only been able to practice a few times. Tshiebwe said the volume of the crowd made it difficult to hear play calls and execute.

“I had to change how we were playing offensively at halftime,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I couldn’t get Oscar to run the plays right. You know why? He hasn’t been practicing with us. So I said, ‘Go to the baseline, we’re going to play dribble drive around you.’ And that’s what we did the whole second half. I ran two plays. We’ve got to practice and get together as a team and get better.”

The Wildcats made just 25% of their shots in the first half before warming up to 51.4% in the second half.

“It’s like Oscar’s hands have their own gravitational pull on rebounds, they’re just always on the ball,” Timme said. “He’s a force, but that’s just how much more proud we are of ’Ton (Anton). With players like that, you can’t let them get easy ones and you have to do your best to contain him. I don’t think ’Ton could have done anything better.”

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