‘We just needed a little bit more toughness.’ Smothering second-half defense allows Gonzaga to overcome deficit against UCLA
March 23, 2023 Updated Fri., March 24, 2023 at 11:33 a.m.
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) tips the shot of UCLA Bruins guard Tyger Campbell (10) during the first half of an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen basketball game on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)Buy a print of this photo
LAS VEGAS – Julian Strawther won it on a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left.
Gonzaga made it possible with exceptional play on the defensive end for more than 11 minutes in the second half of Thursday’s tense, down-to-the-wire Sweet 16 win over UCLA.
The Bulldogs didn’t give up a field goal for 11:20 in the second half, allowing them to erase a 13-point deficit, establish a 10-point lead and give Strawther a chance to knock down the 3-pointer that clinched Gonzaga’s 79-76 win in the Sweet 16 at T-Mobile Arena.
“We just needed a little bit more toughness,” sophomore guard Hunter Sallis said. “Especially going down the stretch, we weren’t going to win that game without any toughness or without any fight. That was really the main focus going into the second half.”
The Bulldogs gave up 46 points in the first half, allowing the Bruins to make 19 of 37 shots from the field and 4 of 7 from the 3-point line.
UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell moved around freely, both as a scorer and distributor, dishing out five assists and scoring 13 points through the game’s opening 20 minutes.
The Bulldogs made a series of changes at halftime and limited Campbell’s opportunities to create for himself and teammates. Campbell still delivered four assists in the second half but scored just one point on 0-of-6 shooting through the final 20 minutes.
“I think we just made a couple adjustments at half, just being more aggressive on our shows and getting the ball out of Campbell’s hands and trying to stop (Jaime) Jaquez getting downhill and stuff,” senior forward Anton Watson, GU’s top defensive player, said in the team’s locker room after the game. “I think we did a good job on them, and that’s what led us to that run in the second half.”
Jaquez Jr., the Pac-12 Player of the Year, was the game’s second-leading scorer with 29 points, but the Bulldogs forced the senior wing to work hard for his production.
Jaquez Jr. shot just 12 of 25 from the field for the game and dealt with foul trouble late in the second half.
The Zags have given Watson the toughest defensive assignment more times than not this season, sticking the Gonzaga Prep product on opposing guards, forwards and centers, and the senior forward shadowed Jaquez Jr. for most of his 36 minutes on Thursday.
“He’s a really good player, and there’s not much you can do when he gets downhill, but I try my best to make him make tough shots and shoot over me,” Watson said. “He’s a good player. He’s going to make a couple, but we did a good job trying to contain him.”
Defense had been an Achilles’ heel for Gonzaga much of the season, dating back to a 99-80 exhibition loss to Tennessee in October, but the Bulldogs made drastic improvements late in West Coast Conference play, peaking on that end of the floor during a 77-51 WCC tournament championship game win over Saint Mary’s.
It’s possible the Zags have a new high point now.
During the 11-minute stretch in the second half, Gonzaga forced 11 consecutive UCLA misses, and the Bruins scored just four points, all from the free throw line. The Bruins finished 9 of 30 from the field and 3 of 11 from the 3-point line after the break.
“We were not guarding well,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “For whatever reason our ball screen coverage, defense slipped back to where it was in November. And it has not been like that the last six weeks, six or seven weeks. So I just challenged them on that and I said we’ve got 20 minutes. That’s plenty of time.
“There’s no 10-point point play I’m going to draw up. Just possession by possession, we’ve got to play better defense.”
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