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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

TV Take: Gonzaga and UCLA’s Sweet 16 thriller delivered everything we love about March

March 23, 2023 Updated Thu., March 23, 2023 at 11:18 p.m.

By Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review

For 20 minutes, it was UCLA’s game. Played at its pace. Played physically. Played without many whistles.

For the next 18 minutes, it was Gonzaga’s game. Played quickly. Played aggressively. Played with almost every whistle going against the Bruins.

The final 2 minutes?

It was all ours, the folks watching on CBS Thursday night. We were treated to an incredible UCLA comeback, an even more astounding Julian Strawther 27-foot 3-pointer and one more Bulldog stop – thanks to the difference maker, Malachi Smith.

It all added up to a hard-to-fathom 79-76 Gonzaga victory and a date in the NCAA’s Elite Eight with Connecticut.

Oh, we can’t forget Drew Timme’s 36-point performance that kept the Zags in it in the first half and helped them build a lead that almost – almost – held up.

The CBS crew of Kevin Harlan on the play-by-play with Dan Bonner and Stan Van Gundy as analysts were on point throughout the night as well.

What they saw …

• With 2 minutes, 40 seconds left Gonzaga led by 10. It was over, right?

Not to Mark Few.

After the game, after UCLA went on a 14-3 run to take a 76-75 lead on Amari Bailey’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds left, and, most importantly, after Strawther’s game-winning bucket with seven seconds left, Few summed it up for Lauren Shehadi and those watching at home.

“Two really, really, really, really good teams,” the Gonzaga coach said in answer to why the Bruins and Zags play such great games. “Both have hearts of champions, so it’s impossible to put them away.”

Not that the Zags didn’t try. And a big reason was Smith, the senior transfer who plays exclusively off the bench. With, as Bonner continually pointed out, starters Nolan Hickman and Rasir Bolton ineffective (and scoreless), Few turned to Smith and Hunter Sallis.

Smith delivered.

He scored 14 points, including the 3-pointer that gave GU the 10-point edge. More importantly, he defended Tyger Campbell, who was the engine for the UCLA offense until the change.

“Malachi Smith has been outstanding on both ends,” Bonner said, after praising his defense on Campbell. “He’s been a bundle of energy.”

His quick hands also came up big on the Bruins last full possession as he stripped Campbell as he drove toward what might have been the tying basket.

• The Bruins dominated the first half defensively. They led by 13 at intermission.

But as good as the Bruins played on that end, and they did, the mirror image was shown by the Zags. As in they struggled at it. Especially against UCLA’s ball-screen actions.

“That’s the story of the game,” Bonner said 10 minutes in. “So far, Gonzaga simply can’t stay in front of (Tyger) Campbell. He’s creating anything he wants.”

It was simple to see but not so simple to stop.

UCLA shot better than 50% in the opening half. The Bruins had 24 points in the paint, more than half their points.

“He’s getting whatever he wants on pick and roll,” Van Gundy noticed. “Gonzaga will have to figure out their pick and roll defense in the second half.”

They did.

• UCLA didn’t score a bucket for more than 11 minutes late in the second half, allowing the Zags to build a 10-point lead with 2:40 left. It was built, as was UCLA’s halftime edge, with defense.

“They’ve gotten tired, no question,” Van Gundy said of UCLA, which was shooting about 25% in the half at that point. “But let’s give credit to Gonzaga’s defense.”

What we saw …

• Timme was nearly unstoppable, hitting 16 of 24 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds. And Van Gundy could never understand why the Bruins, missing starting center Adem Bona, out with a shoulder injury, didn’t defend him with more than one player.

“When do you come and double Drew Timme,” he asked as the game wound down. “I’m not sure I would be willing to go out letting Drew Timme go one-on-one in the low post.”

The Bruins didn’t. With nothing to lose they extended their pressure, forced turnovers – Gonzaga finished with 16 – and fouled when the ball got in the front court. It all worked. Until they led.

UCLA called time. The Zags huddled. The broadcast team talked about Timme. Other options. But Few kept it simple.

“We just wanted to get the ball to Julian,” Few said to Shehadi. “If he could go downhill, it was fine. But I kinda knew if he sized up one of those 3s, we work on that in practice all the time and he usually makes that shot.”

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