LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga’s bench isn’t necessarily deep – the rotation typically remains at seven or eight players in tighter games – but it has been productive.
GU’s starters have been solid, too. The Zags took the balanced offensive approach they’ve shown early on this season to another level Saturday to take down USC 89-76 in front of 8,116 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Backup forward Ben Gregg scored 12 key points and made hustle play after hustle play in the second half as the 11th-ranked Zags pulled away from the Trojans (5-3). Redshirt freshman forward Braden Huff came off the bench in the first half and scored 10 points to help GU build a 44-37 lead.
“They were huge,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Gregg and Huff. “Obviously, Braden gave us great minutes and just great shot-making in that first half. Ben just gave us a lift overall with his energy and his toughness.
“I talked to him about when he brings that, it makes such a huge difference in our team. All the baskets, the 3s and all those are frosting on the cake, man. When he brings that other stuff it just raises the level.”
The Zags, who came in with five players averaging in double figures, went one better with six against the Trojans – one of the better defensive teams nationally over the last four to five seasons.
Ryan Nembhard and freshman wing Dusty Stromer each had 15 points with Nembhard dishing out seven assists and Stromer grabbing five boards. Graham Ike and Gregg were next with 14 points and they combined for 18 rebounds. Huff added 12 points and Nolan Hickman finished with 10 points and four assists.
Anton Watson, the team’s leading scorer at 15.7 entering the game, nearly made it seven in double digits. He had nine points, five boards and three steals.
“It’s a nightmare, honestly,” said Stromer, who connected on four 3-pointers en route to his season-high 15 points. “We all love to see each other score and we all love to see each other make plays.
“I think that’s what makes this place (Gonzaga) so special. We’re all happy for each other on the court. Defensively, it’s tough to guard us.”
Gonzaga (6-1) stretched its winning streak to 16 against Pac-12 opponents. The Zags entertain Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Tuesday before taking on another Pac-12 foe, Washington, on Saturday in Seattle.
The Huskies lost to No. 20 Colorado State 86-81 in the evening’s opening game of the Legends of Basketball Las Vegas Invitational doubleheader.
Gonzaga ran off 13 unanswered points to bolt in front 15-2. Stromer started and capped the burst with 3-pointers.
The margin grew to 20-6 before USC’s offense slowly heated up. The Trojans missed their first six 3-pointers before Boogie Ellis and Kobe Johnson connected on 3s to trim Gonzaga’s lead to 26-20.
Huff, who missed a layup on his first shot attempt, came through with four field goals, including a pair of 3-pointers, the latter boosting Gonzaga’s lead to 36-28.
Ike, who also had 10 first-half points, scored inside to give Gonzaga a 44-37 edge at half. The Zags converted USC’s five turnovers into 10 points and had a 15-4 edge in fastbreak points in the opening half.
The Trojans, who came in shooting 76.5% at the free-throw line, misfired on 7 of 8 attempts, including a pair of misses by Isaiah Collier with 0.9 seconds left. USC’s school record at the line is 75.8% by the 1976 team.
During a timeout early in the second half, a female fan came out of the stands for a free-throw shooting contest and hit five in a row to win a free T-shirt. USC players might have been envious, except they were getting an earful from the coaching staff during the break.
“Gonzaga’s shot-making really hurt us,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “They made 12 of 22 3s. I thought that was the difference in the game. We struggled from the foul line and (with) our shot-making in the first half. It’s hard to be behind by six to 12 points and try to come back against a team like this.”
USC’s stat sheet was far different than Gonzaga’s. Ellis, a fifth-year senior guard, poured in 28 points and backcourt running mate Collier, the top-ranked guard in the 2023 recruiting class, added 14. They were the only two in double digits.
The Trojans finished just 6 of 22 on 3s. They were better at the foul line in the final 20 minutes and finished 8 of 17.
“We lost this game because we didn’t do the little things,” Ellis said. “We gave up 11 offensive rebounds in the second half. I feel like every time we gave up an offensive rebound, they’d do something like hit a 3 or something like that and it kills the momentum we’re trying to build.”
Six Zags made 3-pointers and the team was 9 of 12 at the free-throw line.