Julian Strawther had the final say in Gonzaga’s entertaining 88-84 win over Xavier on Sunday with his 3-point scoring burst in the last four minutes.
In our latest Gonzaga rewind, we take a look at the factors behind Strawther’s performance, a second half shootout that produced a combined 98 points by the two teams, Ben Gregg’s additional minutes and the Zags’ unpredictable nature through seven games.
Strawther shouldering more responsibility
The 6-foot-7 junior wing came into Sunday’s game with good numbers, but he hasn’t been immune to stretches of inconsistency and uneven play that has hit everyone in the rotation at times.
Strawther is an obvious candidate to step up as a primary scoring option alongside All-American Drew Timme. Strawther showed he could assume that role last season, but it wasn’t necessary on a full-time basis with Timme putting up big numbers and Chet Holmgren, Andrew Nembhard and Rasir Bolton averaging in double figures.
Strawther hit three 3-pointers and scored 20 points in the win over Kentucky. He made five 3s, two as Gonzaga rallied late, and finished with 23 points against Xavier.
“It just feels amazing, especially for these guys to look to get me the ball when the shot clock is running down and we needed a big shot,” Strawther said. “They believed in me, so it feels amazing to knock them down. When you’re in the gym by yourself, those are the ones you envision yourself making.”
He’s making them at a high clip, but it’s not his only stat on the rise. He leads the team in rebounding at 8.4 per game compared to 5.4 last season. His scoring average has improved (14.1 vs. 11.8 a year ago) and so has his 3-point accuracy (45.5% vs. 36.5%). He’s also taken on more leadership duties.
The Zags didn’t miss a field-goal attempt in the final 6:30 against Xavier, two days after their lopsided loss to Purdue. After a 19-point road loss to Texas, GU responded by pulling away from Kentucky in the second half. Timme took over in a second-half comeback against Michigan State.
“It’s really important to know that we can execute down the stretch,” Strawther said of the final 6 minutes against the Musketeers. “Every time down coach had a scheme or something he wanted to execute. (Xavier) threw something at us that might have thrown us off course a little bit and we improvised and made the right play.
“That’s really huge that we can improvise on the spot. We’re looking to get Drew the ball down the stretch and they were doing a really good job taking him out of his comfort zone and he can make that extra pass to open guys.”
The second-half stats offensively were off the charts for both teams. Xavier connected on 21 of 34 shots. GU wasn’t far behind at 16 of 30. The teams combined to hit 11 of 18 3-point attempts. Xavier poured in 50 points, Gonzaga 48.
The flip side is that both defenses didn’t offer much resistance for most of the half.
“There are times when you go into the gym alone and you don’t make 21 of 34,” Musketeers coach Sean Miller said. “We hit a spurt in the second half we were almost unguardable.”
Miller lamented his team’s inability to keep Gonzaga from getting extra possessions via offensive rebounds, a recurring theme thus far in Xavier’s bigger games.
“The beginning of the second half, I would be willing to bet three or four 3-point shots that Gonzaga got happened after an offensive rebound,” Miller said. “Two times we had two guys literally leaking out toward half-court.”
The Zags, led by Anton Watson and Ben Gregg, kept at least a handful of rebounds alive by tipping balls out that were eventually gathered by teammates.
Still, yielding 84 points put additional stress on Gonzaga’s offense to produce.
“I would just say getting stops on defense,” Watson said of GU’s biggest priority. “They made a couple runs where it was kind of hard to stop the bleeding. I think we’ll always have offense and it will always come.”
Gregg earning additional time
The coaching staff tinkered with the rotation in Portland with Gregg logging 22 minutes vs. Purdue and Xavier. He didn’t play against Texas and averaged 4.5 minutes in the other four games.
Gregg made the most of his time with 12 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three 3-pointers in the last two games of the tournament.
“Everybody gets a chance, everyone will continue to get a chance,” coach Mark Few said. “He’s really helped us with his minutes and when you’re in close games like this, playing is a privilege not a right. You have to come in and change the game and change the energy. There’s no doubt he’s certainly done that.”
Miller stopped Ben Gregg in a hallway near the interview room after the game and told the sophomore forward he’s “really coming on.”
Zags “keep it interesting”
The Zags have won a couple of thrillers. They’ve had couple of clunkers. They’ve been scorched defensively at times. They’ve scorched opposing defenses at times. They were turnover prone early. They’ve been assist prone lately.
It’s been a wild ride for the 14th-ranked Zags as they begin preparations for Friday’s showdown vs. No. 6 Baylor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“We definitely keep it interesting,” Watson said with a smile. “It’s probably not a good thing for most part right now, but it’s been fun with this new team and just the adventure we’ve been having throughout the season. A lot of surprises so far.”
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