A disappointing defeat for No. 2 Gonzaga at No. 11 Texas on Wednesday had the potential to be a lot more devastating considering both Nolan Hickman and Julian Strawther exited the Lone Star State with ankle injuries.
Strawther’s was not made public until after the Bulldogs knocked off No. 4 Kentucky 88-72 in front of a raucous, yet technically neutral, Spokane Arena crowd on Sunday.
The admission came after a question about Hickman’s up-in-the-air status prior being back into the starting lineup on Wednesday.
“Julian was down and out also,” Few said. “So those guys toughed it out and showed a lot of guts and a lot of heart and toughness and laid it all out there tonight.”
Hickman was unable to finish the loss to the Longhorns after bumping into Texas guard Sir’Jabari Rice and stepping awkwardly.
There were real doubts after Wednesday about his availability on Sunday when Bulldog head coach Mark Few said his ankle was “pretty banged up” and “it didn’t look good.”
But both injuries responded to treatment the last few days, and that allowed the two to both start and finish the game while being instrumental pieces in the Bulldogs’ win over the Wildcats.
Strawther was on the floor for all but the final nine seconds of the first half. Hickman’s 28 minutes of floor time was only minimized by his fourth foul with 9:57 left in the second half that sent him to an early benching.
Strawther scored the first point after Kentucky forced GU’s lead down to four with seven minutes remaining in the game.
“And then, I also thought our response in the second half after they made their run, that was a very, very good sign for us moving forward,” Few said.
The junior wing also was responsible for pushing the Bulldogs to a 13-point lead with a 3-ball with 4:42 left.
But it was the combination of Hickman and Strawther who were the most effective Bulldogs on the evening.
While Rasir Bolton’s 24 points led the Zags, it was Hickman’s plus/minus of plus-25 and Strawther’s plus-16 that paced the squad.
The plus/minus stat looks at a team’s overall point differential when a player is on the court, compared to when he is on the bench. It’s a basic approach to an important conclusion.
Hickman was much more comfortable with the pace and physicality of this game.
Against Texas, Hickman had a net-zero plus/minus.
The sophomore from Seattle finished with four points and two steals, but he was instrumental in slowing down the outside shots of CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves, who combined for 3 of 14 from 3-point range.
Hickman also did a better job at protecting the basketball, coughing it up just twice.
For Strawther, his traditional stats also popped .
He finished with a team-high 14 rebounds and went 7 for 7 from the free-throw line, part of a teamwide effort.
“When we go (19 for 21) , we were just talking in the locker room, at the free-throw line I mean, we haven’t been doing that in these games,” Few said.
Strawther was 3 for 4 from behind the arc and attacked the rim, putting the Wildcats into foul trouble and finishing through contact.
His 14 rebounds were one shy of All-American Oscar Tshiebwe’s 15 for Kentucky, but they helped the Zags dominate the glass with 39 rebounds to the Wildcats’ 29.
“To be honest with you, the way we were rebounding, I didn’t know that we could hang with ’em on the glass,” Few said. “And I was really pleased that we, especially after that first half, I thought we did a great job on the glass.”