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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga’s plan: limit Grand Canyon’s 3-pointers, utilize interior edge

March 16, 2023 Updated Thu., March 16, 2023 at 8:50 p.m.

DENVER – What happens when two confident, motivated teams playing perhaps their best basketball of the season collide in the first round of March Madness?

Gonzaga and Grand Canyon will find out at 4:35 p.m. Friday at Ball Arena.

The third-seeded Zags (28-5) have won nine straight, one over rival Saint Mary’s that led to a co-West Coast Conference championship and a 77-51 beatdown of the Gaels in the WCC Tournament title game that sent GU into the NCAA Tournament with palpable momentum.

No. 14 Grand Canyon (24-11), which finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the Western Athletic Conference, has won six in a row, including four in five days to capture the conference tournament title, following a players-only team meeting.

“We know they had their backs against the wall, and if they wanted to make it, they had to win their conference,” Gonzaga senior forward Drew Timme said. “They took care of business. They’re a team that obviously performs well under high pressure, and there’s not much more pressure than what we’re both about to walk into.

“And they’re hot. They’re obviously clicking and they were raining down 3s in their conference tournament, so we’re really going to have to be locked in on defense.”

Both teams face defensive challenges. The Zags lead the nation in scoring (87.5 points) and field-goal percentage (52.9). Grand Canyon leans on a small-ball lineup with only one player taller than 6-foot-7 typically in the rotation.

How will the Lopes deal with Timme and frontcourt running mate Anton Watson? Timme produces 20.9 points per game and Watson averaged nearly 14 in WCC contests. Both hit more than 60% of their shots.

Conversely, the Zags must contend with talented guard Ray Harrison and a capable crew of 3-point shooters. Harrison became the top offensive option after preseason WAC Player of the Year Javon Blacksher Jr. suffered a season-ending ACL injury in early January.

“I definitely think their small-ball lineup is a double-edged sword,” Timme said. “They’re really good at spacing the floor and getting mismatches. But at the end of the day, they have to guard ‘Ton’ (Anton) and I as well, so it’s kind of going to be who takes advantage of that first. It’ll be an interesting game of chess.”

Harrison averaged 21.1 points, but his preference is dribble penetration and finishing or drawing fouls in the lane. The WAC Tournament most outstanding player was third on the team with 48 3-pointers, but his 32.4% accuracy was the lowest among six teammates with at last 25 made 3s.

Chance McMillian, who replaced Blacksher in the starting lineup, leads the way at 44.6%, followed by Noah Baumann, a 42.6% career shooter from deep who played at San Jose State, USC and Georgia before transferring to Grand Canyon for his fifth year.

Grand Canyon has connected on 38.3% of its 3s, 14th nationally.

“Really scary,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “I watched them the other day make 10 3s in a half. They’re on an incredible run right now. They’re seeing a huge basket.”

The Lopes found their stride after a Feb. 28 players-only meeting called by Yvan Quedraogo, one of the team’s quietest players, in Cedar City, Utah. Whatever was discussed seemed to spark GCU’s turnaround. The Lopes won six straight, two on the road and four at the WAC Tournament to reach March Madness.

“The best teams are player-driven,” Lopes coach Bryce Drew said. “Players control the locker room. With the preseason player of the year going down, we’re a fairly young team with no seniors starting and the three perimeters are all underclassmen. The players took it upon themselves and now that they did, you feel great that the players have taken accountability.”

Few is close with Grand Canyon coach Bryce’s brother, Scott, the head coach at Baylor. The Bears defeated the Zags in the 2021 national championship and 64-63 in December in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Has Bryce has been calling for coaching pointers against Gonzaga?

“So (GU assistant) Roger Powell was with my brother, and they’ve been great friends,” Scott said. “And same with us, we know a lot about each other’s programs. It’s tough when you play that person, but other than that, you always cheer for them. I know both staffs really respect one another.”

Few and Scott Drew passed time in the 2021 tournament bubble playing pickleball.

Asked for a scouting report on Bryce’s pickleball ability, Scott said, “Obviously the toughest decision was who Coach Few was going to choose as a partner. I’m a great recruiter, so I recruited him right away. My dad (Homer) and (Bryce) were going to take us on if we had time, but we didn’t have time to get it in.”

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