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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga’s margin for error small, particularly on road in WCC

Jan. 6, 2023 Updated Fri., Jan. 6, 2023 at 8:05 p.m.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The plan was for Mark Few to keep his cool while making his points with Gonzaga’s players after a lackluster first half Thursday against San Francisco.

On second thought …

“I told them I’m tired, I’m the guy that’s always trying to get them going,” the Zags’ longtime head coach said. “I started at halftime, but then I worked myself up into a crescendo on my own. Wasn’t the plan, but I got there eventually. I looked at somebody and it touched me off.”

The Zags rallied to win 77-75 in large part because senior guard Rasir Bolton refused to allow them to lose by scoring 11 points in the final 5-plus minutes, including the winning putback.

“He saved us,” Few said. “We stole it at the end, basically.”

Few’s blunt assessments carried over to his postgame comments. It became something of an impromptu State of the Zags address, one the players might want to take to heart with Saturday’s road date looming against Santa Clara, which is stronger in terms of NET ranking and record than a USF team that gave ninth-ranked Gonzaga fits.

Gonzaga (13-3, 2-0 West Coast Conference) is 15th in the NET, four spots behind rival Saint Mary’s. Santa Clara (14-4, 2-1), which handled the Dons in a 12-point home win, is third among WCC teams at No. 76, one spot away from qualifying as a Quad 1 road foe. San Francisco is 119.

If nothing else, Thursday’s game underscored the fine line between winning and losing for the Zags when they don’t show up ready to play.

“I think this was good,” Few said. “I think they understand that every night, especially on the road, is going to be really, really hard. I’ve been preaching that. They’re young, sometimes they don’t always understand.

“Like I was telling you guys, we’re limited. So if we don’t come out and play with great energy and connectivity and passion then we’re going to get beat. The margin for error is way less than all these other teams we’ve had.”

Saturday should be another challenge with a full house expected at the Leavey Center and the Broncos riding the momentum of six wins in their past seven games. Their only loss in that stretch was a 67-64 setback vs. Saint Mary’s.

Santa Clara leans heavily on its starting five after losing senior guard Carlos Marshall to a season-ending injury. Sophomore guard Brandin Podziemski, a transfer from Illinois, leads the conference in minutes per game (35.6) and the Broncos in just about every statistical category, including scoring (18.8), rebounding (8.6) and assists (3.4).

Senior wing Keshawn Justice is right behind Podziemski in minutes (34.3) and contributes 12.0 points with a team-leading 46 3-pointers. Sophomore point guard Carlos Stewart hits nearly 42% from distance and has nearly tripled his scoring average to 14.8 from a year ago.

“We need to play with energy and do the right things,” GU junior wing Julian Strawther said. “Every team in the WCC is coming for us. We have a target on our back.

“They’re a really super skilled team, guys that can really fill it up, skilled bigs that can shoot it. I’m expecting the same type of game. We have to come out and throw the first punch instead of walking around with our guard up.”

Steady senior bigs Parker Braun and Jaden Bediako provide defense (40 blocks combined), rebounding (12.4 per game) and scoring (15.5 points). Braun scored 16 in Thursday’s road win over Pepperdine.

“I’m sure they’ll take the same game plan (as San Francisco) and probably won’t guard some of our guys,” said Few, whose Zags have won 24 straight against Santa Clara. “We have to step up and make some shots or, like I was telling them, make some of those other plays, putbacks, defensive plays. There’s more to it than just shooting.

“We’ll find out which one of our guys is ready to step up.”

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