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Gonzaga Basketball

In foul-ridden game, Gonzaga relies on frontcourt depth to keep UCLA at bay in 69-65 win

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Dusty Stromer (4) reaches for the ball against UCLA Bruins forward Adem Bona (3) during the second half of a college basketball game in the Allstate Maui Invitational on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023, at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gonzaga won the game 69-65.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

HONOLULU – Gonzaga’s impromptu four-year series against UCLA has provided a little of everything. A high-scoring marathon in the Final Four. A 20-point Gonzaga blowout the following season. A tense chess match in last year’s Elite Eight.

Given the diversity of the last three games, it was fair to wonder would Wednesday night serve up when the Bulldogs and Bruins met for the fourth time in as many years in the nightcap at the Maui Invitational.

The verdict?

“A tough, tough kind of a rock fight of a game,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, describing the nature of his team’s 69-65 victory over UCLA at SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center. “The A plan wasn’t working and the B plan wasn’t working, but (we had) to really, really dig deep and we did a great job of digging deep and getting stops there at the end.”

The game probably wasn’t as physical or chippy as the 51 fouls indicated, but those made it hard for either team to establish any type of offensive rhythm in a game where Gonzaga made just 43% of its shots from the field and actually outdid UCLA in that category, with the Bruins connecting on only 35% and 30% in the first half.

The foul tally started early and didn’t cease in the second half.

Gonzaga and UCLA combined for 29 fouls before the break and another 22 after it. The Bulldogs attempted 29 free throws as a team while the Bruins attempted 31.

“They were calling a lot of fouls, but at the same time we couldn’t let up on the fight,” Gonzaga forward Ben Gregg said. “Obviously we knew it was going to be a war, we had to keep playing physical, just play a little smarter. Foul trouble hurt us a lot, but a lot of guys stepped up.”

The Bulldogs run fairly deep in the frontcourt this year and relied on all five rotational forwards to play key minutes on the third and final day of the Maui Invitational.

Nobody was more critical to the final result than Anton Watson, who reached 1,000 points and a new career high (32 points) while accounting for 11 consecutive field goals at one point in the second half.

But Watson was also required to spend a large chunk of the first half on the bench, sitting for the final 11 minutes, 37 seconds after he was whistled for his second foul. Starting forward Graham Ike was already on the bench when Watson arrived, picking up his second foul even earlier than his teammate and resting for the final 12 minutes, 48 seconds.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few reacts to a call during a game against UCLA on Wednesday in Honolulu.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few reacts to a call during a game against UCLA on Wednesday in Honolulu. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

During a stretch of 10-plus minutes where Gonzaga was missing both of its frontcourt starters, the Bulldogs relied on their reserve forwards – Gregg, Jun Seok Yeo and Braden Huff – to carry the workload and keep the Bruins at bay.

They did so with large degrees of success, helping Gonzaga emerge with a four-point lead at halftime.

Yeo scored his first college points against a Division I opponent, burying a 3-pointer that extended Gonzaga’s lead back out to 10 points, and knocking down two of his four shots from the free throw line.

“Jun came in and did a lot of good things,” Gregg said.

The Zags needed all they could get in Wednesday’s rock fight.

Gregg finished with only four points, but came up with two crucial offensive rebounds late in the game and finished with eight total boards to go with two blocked shots.

Gonzaga laid off fouling in the second half, only committing nine while UCLA committed another 13.

Every GU player that got on the court Wednesday finished with at least three fouls, but Ike was the only one to tally five and the Bulldogs still managed to close the game with most of their starters on the floor.

The Bruins’ Adem Bona had to sit for a long stretch in the second half after being whistled for his fourth foul and key reserve Kenneth Nwuba only played 14 minutes before fouling out with 9:38 to play in the game.

“Jun did a great job of coming in, those were really, really good minutes for us and we might have even grew the lead a little but initially,” Few said. “We were in foul trouble and it was just one of those physical games. Watching their other games, they were very much like that and Mick (Cronin) has done a good job getting these dudes to be physical and tough.”