Fourth-ranked Kentucky was doomed from the start of Sunday’s game against second-ranked Gonzaga and possibly much earlier than that. The Wildcats were in the unenviable position of being the next team on the Bulldogs’ schedule following a 19-point loss at Texas four days earlier. On the rare occasion Gonzaga lost, history hasn’t been kind to the team waiting in the on-deck circle.
Over the last 11 years, the Bulldogs have lost back-to-back games on just three occasions and never appeared in real danger of doing it for a fourth time against one of the sport’s blue bloods. Gonzaga’s response to Wednesday’s catastrophe at the Moody Center came in the form of an 88-72, wire-to-wire victory over Kentucky, played in front of 12,333 fans that made up the largest crowd – for basketball or otherwise – in Spokane Arena history.
“Let me tell you what’s not fun is being around this guy after a game like we played down in Austin,” Gonzaga forward Drew Timme, seated next to coach Mark Few, said in the postgame press conference. “Easy to be motivated and one thing about us is we might screw up, but we’re going to respond, we’re going to bounce back. I think it’s a testament to our character, this team’s character. While this road may not be perfect, one thing we know is we’re going to respond and we’re going to come out swinging.
“That’s a good thing to know and it’s just a testament to coach, what he’s put in us and just how we’re able to rally as a group.”
Timme said Gonzaga’s motivation was at an “all-time high” leaving Austin, and it was discernible from the opening possession.
Kentucky’s Cason Wallace was off the mark on a 3-point shot just seconds after tipoff. Rasir Bolton came down the floor to swish a 3 on Gonzaga’s first possession, and Julian Strawther closed out on the Wildcats’ next shot, swatting a CJ Fredrick 3 into the stands. Strawther made a catch-and-shoot 3 and Timme converted a floater to extend Gonzaga’s lead to 8-0.
The Bulldogs never relinquished the lead – a profound statement for a team that led for a total of 13 minutes, 27 seconds in games against Michigan State and Texas.
“I think it was really, really big,” Few said of his team’s start. “You’re hoping that’s how your team responds after a disappointing loss, and it was great. It got the crowd energized and they stayed energized. It was a phenomenal environment in here tonight. Yeah, that was big.”
Bolton, Timme and Strawther represented three-fourths of the Zags who finished in double figures. Bolton scored a game-high 24 points, connecting on 4 of 8 from the 3-point line. Timme manufactured one of his signature second-half takeovers, scoring 12 points after the break while luring Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, into his second and third fouls early in the half. Strawther connected on a trio of 3-pointers and didn’t miss a free throw (7 of 7) to finish with 22 points. The junior wing also snatched a career-high 14 rebounds.
All three were high-impact players for GU and still perhaps not as impressive as the fourth Zag to reach double digits. Senior forward Anton Watson turned in the most impressive game of his college career, scoring 10 points to go with 10 rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot. On consecutive possessions in the first half, the Gonzaga Prep product ripped the ball out of Tshiebwe’s hands while the Kentucky All-American was going up to shoot.
Watson delivered the highlight of GU’s season to this point, and one that may stand until the very end, when he faked a handoff at the top of the arc to dupe multiple Kentucky defenders before charging toward the rim and jamming the ball with one hand. Tshiebwe, only half-committed to making a defensive stand on the play, slid back into the paint but ultimately opted not to challenge Watson at the rim.
“I don’t even want to say what I thought, but I was just cheesing,” Timme said. “I was just like, this is crazy, and he can do it. We’ve seen him do it before, but to see him actually do it on this stage, in this place.”
Few chimed in: “We’d like to see it more, right?”
“Every time,” Timme laughed. “We’d love to see that a lot more and it’s just awesome. Yeah, just excited.”
The Bulldogs held the Wildcats to 27 of 69 (39%) from the field and 6 of 25 (24%) from the 3-point line on a night Kentucky’s shooters were missing contested and uncontested looks. Kentucky came in shooting 42% on 3-pointers, but missed its first 11 on Sunday. The Wildcats went 6 of 15 (40%) on 3s in the second half, closing an 18-point deficit to four points with 13:07 remaining.
“Well, we missed every shot,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “So you can say what you want. We missed every shot. You don’t have to make ’em all. You just can’t miss ’em all and expect to be in the game with a good team.
“And Gonzaga played well. They played well. We only had 11 turnovers. You want to know, though? When we got the game to four, there were two of them right then. What? And we gave up a 3 and we fouled, and all of a sudden it’s back to nine. What in the world just happened?”
Facing the length, strength and athleticism of Kentucky, Gonzaga may not have expected to leave Sunday’s game with an overwhelming advantage on the glass, but the Bulldogs finished with 39 total rebounds to Kentucky’s 29.
Tshiebwe, the nation’s leading rebounder last season, was responsible for 15 of Kentucky’s 29 boards, and he scored 20 points despite playing only 12 minutes in the second half due to foul trouble. Jacob Toppin had 16 points and Wallace added 14 for a Kentucky team that used unorthodox lineups at times due to foul trouble.
“Give Gonzaga credit because when we came back in that environment – it was a great environment by the way – in that environment, we had a chance to win that game,” Calipari said. “And we let go of the rope and they finished us off. So you got to give them credit.”