In some cases it was focus, in others intensity.
The 11th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs let both drift at different junctures of a midweek contest against Cal State Bakersfield, but never long enough to truly set them back during an 81-65 nonconference victory over the Roadrunners at McCarthey Athletic Center.
Six players scored in double figures to help the Bulldogs improve to 5-1 on the season and win their first home game since returning from the Maui Invitational, where Gonzaga played three games in three days against top-ranked Purdue, Syracuse and UCLA at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.
A demanding stretch of basketball in Hawaii combined with an illness bug a handful of Gonzaga players and coaches caught Friday on a flight back to the mainland that may have led to some of the sluggish stretches the Zags endured.
Adding to that, a scrappy Bakersfield team that didn’t fold when it fell into a 15-point deficit late in the first half, then a 22-point hole with 8 minutes remaining in the second.
The Roadrunners pulled to within 13 points with 4 minutes left on a second-chance jumper from Kaleb Higgins, who finished with 21 points. Ryan Nembhard, the game’s other 20-point scorer, followed with four straight points, allowing Gonzaga to coast to the finish line without much trouble.
“Obviously, that game wasn’t our A string, whatever,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It was very choppy and that’s due to, Bakersfield really competes. They get out and compete and they don’t quit competing. They get after you really good in kind of every phase. You’ve just got to buckle down and just play with heart.”
For the fifth time in seven games, Gonzaga had a different leading scorer, as Nembhard led the way with 22 points – his highest total since transferring to Gonzaga from Creighton this offseason.
Backcourt mate Nolan Hickman scored 13 points, freshman forward Braden Huff added 12, veteran forwards Graham Ike and Anton Watson finished with 11 apiece and freshman guard Dusty Stromer reached double digits for the first time in his career, scoring 10 points.
Coming off a 32-point outing that earned him Maui Invitational All-Tournament and West Coast Conference Player of the Week honors, Watson posted his third double-double in seven games, matching his career high with 13 rebounds. The fifth-year senior finished plus-26 in a game in which no other Gonzaga player was better than plus-18.
“He was great,” Few said of Watson. “I told him afterward. The plays he makes and way he competes, he’s a winner. People pick up this score and, oh yeah, yeah, but he made a lot of winning plays when the game was still in the balance.”
The Zags never trailed, but they were disjointed on the offensive end at various points, squandering a handful of opportunities to blow the game open.
Gonzaga went up 26-15 on Nembhard’s jumper with 11 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the first half, then missed 11 consecutive shots from the field before Watson converted a fast-break layup with 4:45 left in the half.
Ike made four free throws during that stretch and GU never let the lead slip, largely because the Roadrunners hit some roadblocks on offense. Cal State Bakersfield didn’t make a field goal for 8:32 and scored only 11 points inside the final 10 minutes of the first half.
“They’re a pretty solid team, coming off a tough Maui tournament we just weren’t as focused as we needed to be,” Nembhard said. “But at the end of the day, a win’s a win and we’ve just got to keep moving forward, keep getting better in practice and working on our offense and defense trying to get better for the next game. We’ll get that right.”
The Zags won’t have the same margin for error on Saturday when they travel to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for a neutral-site test against USC (4-2), which was ranked No. 23 in the country before losing 72-70 to Oklahoma on Friday at the Rady Children’s Invitational in San Diego.
Gonzaga and USC will tip off at 7 p.m. with ESPN2 providing live coverage.