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Gonzaga Basketball

Orange crushed: Gonzaga establishes interior presence, cruises by Syracuse 76-57 at Maui Invitational

HONOLULU – Aesthetically speaking, it’s the most appealing sector of the custom floor at the Maui Invitational. The hardwood rectangle commonly known in basketball terms as the “key” has been transformed into a vibrant mural for this week’s tournament – which features a handful of college basketball’s brand names – with floral patterns and tropical hues splashed across the 16- by 19-foot area.

Gonzaga found that part of the floor rather inviting, too, and spent large portions of Tuesday’s game against Syracuse hunkering down in the paint and trying to establish its low-post offense.

Those efforts were successful, particularly in the early phases of a relatively stress-free 76-57 victory over the Orange at SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center.

Gonzaga (3-1) advanced out of the “breakfast bracket” – coined by Bulldogs coach Mark Few – to set up a fifth-/sixth-place game matchup with a familiar opponent, UCLA (4-1), which cruised past Chaminade on Tuesday afternoon.

The Zags and Bruins have a rich history, meeting each of the last three seasons, and will look to create some more when they tip off at 9 p.m. in Honolulu.

Graham Ike and Anton Watson blossomed in Gonzaga’s second game at the Maui Invitational, both overpowering and outthinking Syracuse’s bigs to run up a 30-10 first-half advantage in paint points.

The Orange initially deployed a 2-3 zone defense similar to the one longtime coach Jim Boeheim ran at Syracuse for four decades. They discarded that strategy later in the game after Ike and Watson combined for 22 first-half points and 16 rebounds.

“They were playing zone a lot, I feel like, in the first half,” Watson said. “It was just opening up a lot at the high post and we work on floaters a lot, so I can get to that. Then Graham was open a lot on the low baseline. So, yeah, I just felt like it was easy buckets for us.”

Speaking of things that were easy, and easy on the eyes, Gonzaga made a drastic improvement from the 3-point line after missing 16 consecutive shots from behind the arc Monday against Purdue.

The Bulldogs relied on interior scoring early and changed gears in the second half, making five 3-pointers after halftime to finish 7 of 20 for the game. Sophomore forward Braden Huff led the Zags in that facet of the game, making 3 of 6 shots from behind the 3-point arc. Junior guard Nolan Hickman added two more.

“Honestly, I just feel everybody steps up to the 3 (point line) and has the confidence to knock it down,” said Hickman, who made a pair of 3-pointers and led the Bulldogs with 19 points. “That’s what coach preaches to us, that’s what we practice, so I feel like that was what we needed, to see the ball go through the hoop, for sure.”

Gonzaga never trailed and never conceded control of the game, save for a brief stretch in the second half.

Maliq Brown trimmed Syracuse’s deficit to six points when he completed a poster dunk over Watson. After Hickman stretched the lead back out to 53-45, Syracuse’s Judah Mintz converted a layup to make it a two-possession game again.

Gonzaga’s response came in the form of two 3-pointers, the first by Hickman after Ben Gregg saved an offensive rebound and kicked out to his teammate. That made it a nine-point Zags lead, and Gregg extended it to 12 when he caught Ryan Nembhard’s pass on the wing in transition before rising up from the right wing.

“They’re a good team, at the end of the day,” Syracuse’s Mintz said in the postgame news conference. “We clawed back, but at the end of the day, we put ourselves in position to have to claw back, which makes it harder to beat good teams like Gonzaga.”

Hickman’s 19 points fell one short of his career high. Ike and Watson both had double-doubles, with Ike scoring 16 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, and Watson adding 12 points and 13 rebounds.

Watson, the fifth-year senior forward and Gonzaga Prep product, said he was working to be more aggressive on Tuesday after finishing the first half of Monday’s game scoreless and totaling just eight points against Purdue.

“I’ve just been working on that since then, just being more assertive,” Watson said. “I think the team is better when I play like that. Yeah, just making plays, I feel like that’s when I play my best.”

The Bulldogs also got 11 points, seven assists and five rebounds from Nembhard.

Mintz scored a team-high 22 points for Syracuse, but the Orange shot 23 of 64 from the field as a team and went just 3 of 24 from the 3-point line. Gonzaga outrebounded Syracuse 48-28 .