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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga comes up with key plays, secures marquee win against No. 17 Kentucky at Rupp Arena

LEXINGTON, Ky. – For a split-second, Ben Gregg ditched his small forward role to play free safety for Gonzaga with the marquee game of Saturday’s college basketball slate on the line at Rupp Arena.

As the game clock ticked down from double digits to single digits, Gregg fought through a screen near the top of the paint, retreated to the low block and put himself in position to box out Adou Thiero for a defensive rebound.

Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard had other ideas.

When the freshman guard rose up from the 3-point line, the next move felt inevitable. Some quick context: Sheppard, a 50% 3-point shooter, had torched Gonzaga for 21 second-half points, swiftly becoming Kentucky’s top offensive weapon following a scoreless first half.

But when the projected NBA lottery pick rose up over Nolan Hickman, he didn’t have his eyes on the hoop, firing a 20-foot pass toward Thiero, rather than a 20-foot shot at the basket.

“I had my guy coming off two cross screens,” Gregg said. “I was going to get through that then all the sudden the ball’s flying over my head.”

The final part of the sequence? The part Gonzaga fans will remember for years to come? The part 20,000 Kentucky fans wished they could’ve instantly wiped from their memory?

“I had time to reach back,” Gregg said, “and thankfully I grabbed it.”

Put another way by teammate Ryan Nembhard: “He went up there and snagged that thing.”

Gregg’s interception clinched a 89-85 Gonzaga victory over No. 17 Kentucky and promptly ended the Bulldogs’ search for a Quad 1 win. Gonzaga had been empty in that column, coming up short in five other Quad 1 games before the program’s first trip to historic Rupp Arena served up another such opportunity.

The result gave Gonzaga its second win in as many years against Kentucky, after the Bulldogs cruised to an 88-72 win at the Arena last season. It came with consequences for the Wildcats, too, and not the positive kind. Saturday signified Kentucky’s third consecutive home loss – something that had never happened since the Wildcats moved into Rupp Arena, or for any Kentucky team since 1966.

“You’re going against a veteran team that really executes what they’re trying to do at the 4-minute mark,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said, “and we weren’t able to withstand some of the stuff they were doing.”

A game that featured five lead changes – and a 13-point Gonzaga lead late in the first half – was anyone’s for the taking down the stretch.

The game’s first basket came courtesy of Nolan Hickman, the former Kentucky commit who switched to Gonzaga in spring 2021, and the Bulldogs held the lead for more than 26 minutes, finally surrendering it when Antonio Reeves knocked down a 3-pointer with 13 minutes, 26 seconds remaining.

Sheppard then supplied seven straight points to extend the Wildcats’ lead to six points, but Graham Ike killed the Kentucky run with a three-point play. Nembhard followed with two free throws to trim Gonzaga’s deficit to one point.

“This was a full team effort, everybody staying locked in,” Nembhard said. “Knowing they’re a good team, they’re going to go on their offensive runs, and we just have to weather that as a group. It was just great connectivity from the whole group.”

Gonzaga withstood Kentucky’s scoring flurries the rest of the way – most of them fueled by Sheppard – and relied on the interior play of Anton Watson, Ike and Braden Huff.

Watson had 10 points, two rebounds, one assist and one blocked shot in the final 10 minutes, drilling a go-ahead 3-pointer from the top of the arc with 8:22 remaining. Watson finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks.

Ike overpowered Kentucky’s long, athletic frontcourt, scoring a game-high 23 points in 24 minutes before fouling out with 43 seconds remaining. The Wyoming transfer also posted four rebounds.

“We knew the bigs were athletic. We knew they might double,” Ike said. “We just stayed poised, stayed even-keeled, just attacking guys. If there was a double coming, kick it out, but if not, make a quick, assertive move and that’s what we did tonight.”

Huff spelled Ike during a crucial 5-minute stretch after the junior picked up his fourth foul. The redshirt freshman forward did more than just buoy Gonzaga through those minutes, scoring eight points and picking up two rebounds before coming back out at the 3:49 mark.

Playing against the Kentucky program that originally landed his commitment in August 2020, Hickman scored 17 points and pulled down five rebounds. Nembhard had nine assists and four turnovers.

Gonzaga overcame another poor outing from the 3-point line (4 of 18) and had its second-best free-throw percentage of the year, making 21 of 24 (87%). In the second half, GU was 18 of 19 from the line, with the Bulldogs’ only miss coming from Gregg after his game-sealing steal at the other end with 5 seconds remaining.

The Wildcats were led by Sheppard’s 21 points. Reeves scored 17 and Thiero had 15.