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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga defense sets the tone, offense manufactures another eruption in 97-72 rout of San Diego

Feb. 23, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 23, 2023 at 11:24 p.m.

Mark Few has spent much of the season trying to coax long, sustained stretches of defense out of his Gonzaga team.

He didn’t have to wait long Thursday night to watch the Bulldogs manufacture one of those in a must-win situation against San Diego.

Gonzaga conceded the game’s first six points before going 6 minutes, 13 seconds without allowing another one, building an early double-digit lead the Bulldogs were able to sustain in a 97-72 win at McCarthey Athletic Center.

Thursday’s result give the Zags a chance to play for a share of the WCC regular season title in Saturday’s highly-anticipated, top-15 matchup against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels were already in cruise control against Pacific in Moraga by the time starting lineups were announced in Spokane and the Zags seemed fully aware of the stakes by the time they tipped off against San Diego.

A loss to the Toreros and Gonzaga would’ve conceded an outright regular season title to Saint Mary’s for the first time since 2016. Beat San Diego and the Zags would have a chance to split the crown with their longtime WCC nemesis.

“If we lost this game, Saturday wouldn’t really matter,” sophomore forward Ben Gregg said. “So we knew this was going to be really important. Now that it’s out of the way, we’re going to have a good prep day tomorrow and Saturday before the game we’re going to be locked in and ready to go, for sure.”

If the Bulldogs find a way to lock in the way they did against San Diego, they’ll have a good shot at beating Saint Mary’s and avenging an overtime loss to the Gaels in Morgaga last month.

After Wayne McKinney and Marcellus Earlington made three of San Diego’s first four shots to take a 6-0 lead, the Bulldogs responded by making the game’s next five shots while forcing 10 straight empty possessions from the Toreros. Five of those resulted in a San Diego turnover and five more finished with a missed shot.

“I thought we had a group out there that was fairly and was breaking on balls and was making plays, wasn’t sitting back and waiting for the offense to dictate what they did,” Few said. “I thought we did a good job of kind of dictating the action. We had different groups, during the course of both halves, kind of went in there and did that.

“I thought the group that finished the half was the one that really got us going there.”

Many of Gonzaga’s most productive units on Thursday – both on offense and defense – were ones that featured sophomore forward Ben Gregg. The Portland native came off the bench to make 7 of 9 shots from the field and 2 of 3 from 3-point range to match his career-high with 18 points.

With seven rebounds, Gregg was one board shy of matching his career-high in that category.

“My role on this team is kind of to bring a spark,” Gregg said. “If guys are tired, kind of light it back up. Whether that’s doing offensive rebounds, diving on the floor, whatever I’ve got to do. Do the dirty work. I was able to get some points tonight, which was nice.”

Gonzaga’s defense, which has been spotty at times this season allowing 74.1 points in conference games, did enough to create early separation and the offense picked up the slack midway through the half, setting the Bulldogs on a path to score 90 points for the 11th time this season.

They’ve done that four times in the last five games and narrowly missed a chance to set a new program record for most 100-point games in a season.

“I thought we were really focused and we just stayed in the moment, which we talked about doing,” Few said. “Obviously we watched San Diego take Saint Mary’s down to the wire there last week and knew they had some really talented offensive players. I thought we did a nice job handling their mixing defenses.”

Drew Timme posted his eighth double-double of the season, scoring 22 points to go with 13 rebounds. In his 126th college game, the senior forward set a career-high with eight offensive rebounds for a GU team that finished with 18 on the night.

Julian Strawther scored 17 points and Nolan Hickman was the fourth Gonzaga player in double figures, finishing with 10 points. Fifth-year senior Rasir Bolton dished out seven assists for the Bulldogs, finishing one short of his career-high.

San Diego’s attack was led by Jase Townsend, who scored 15 points, and Marcellus Earlington, who finished with 11. The shorthanded Toreros were playing without two Pac-12 transfers, former Oregon guard Eric Williams Jr. and former Stanford forward Jaiden Delaire, who were both unavailable due to injuries.

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