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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga survives Will Johnston-induced headaches during 33-point outing for Loyola Marymount guard

LOS ANGELES – Will Johnston was somewhere on Gonzaga’s scouting report prior to Thursday’s game at Loyola Marymount, but the junior guard probably didn’t occupy one of the top few spots – even with the Lions down to just six scholarship players at Gersten Pavilion.

The Bulldogs will probably reconsider their defensive plan for Johnston if the teams link up for a third time this season next month at the West Coast Conference Tournament.

For about 31 minutes on Thursday, Johnston was the primary source of Gonzaga’s headaches, torching the Bulldogs with a series of 3-pointers and stepback jumpers. The Sydney native scored his 33rd point on a 3-pointer with 9:26 remaining in a game that probably featured more lead changes than anyone was expecting.

Fortunately for Gonzaga, that was also the last time Johnston cracked the score sheet in a 91-74 road win over a shorthanded LMU team.

“I’ve watched film on him. He’s a good player,” Few said. “We told the guys he’s very good off the dribble, shooting 3s and like I said, stepback. I don’t think we were quite as dialed in to the report and plan as we were in Spokane.

“We did flip the switch and got out after him. He hit shots, man. He hit a bunch of tough, contested pull-ups so he deserves a ton of credit. They weren’t all easy. We had a couple missed assignments.”

It’s not the first time in his career Johnston’s had an eruption that resembled Thursday’s – the guard scored 30-plus points in two games last season playing for Texas-Rio Grande Valley, including a career-high 36 against Tarleton State – but the Bulldogs probably weren’t expecting it after a bleak outing for the junior when the teams played in Spokane two weeks earlier.

In a 92-58 Gonzaga win, Johnston put up five shots but didn’t see one fall, finishing with zero points and three turnovers in 20 minutes.

The numbers looked better for Johnston in Thursday’s return game at LMU. He made 12 of 21 shots from the field, including 5 of 7 from the 3-point line. It was the highest individual output of a player against Gonzaga since Alabama’s Brandon Miller, the second overall pick of the 2023 NBA draft, dropped 36 in last year’s game in Birmingham.

The Zags have already faced a large group of national player of the year candidates, potential All-Americans and surefire NBA lottery picks this season – Purdue’s Zach Edey, UConn’s Donovan Clingan, Syracuse’s Judah Mintz, San Diego State’s Jaedon LeDee and Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard among them – but none had the impact that Johnston, a 9.9 point-per-game scorer, did during Thursday’s WCC test.

“He had it going, man,” Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman said. “That’s how hoops will be, got the hot hand, rim’s open wide for him and got it going. So all props to him.

“He had a good first half, but we tended to cut the water off in the second half and slow him down. It was a good performance by him.”

How did the Zags stop the bleeding?

“We just zeroed in on him, make sure all his shots were tough,” Hickman said. “He was making some tough shots in the first half, but honestly just making sure his shots were all tough and contesting every shot he took.”

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nolan Hickman (11) guards against Loyola Marymount Lions guard Will Johnston (4) during the first half of a college basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nolan Hickman (11) guards against Loyola Marymount Lions guard Will Johnston (4) during the first half of a college basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Johnston’s final 9 minutes included three missed shots, one turnover and one foul. The Zags took control with roughly 8 minutes to go, scoring 15 straight points and holding the Lions scoreless for more than 6 minutes.

“They threw some different looks, but I think it was mainly fatigue,” Johnston said.

“That definitely set in, but we need to find ways to tough it out and dig a little deeper in those moments.”

Johnston, who scored 21 total points in LMU’s past three games before his 33-point outburst, said he was proud of the team’s resilience despite missing a handful of key players, including fifth-year senior forward Keli Leaupepe and Gonzaga transfer Dominick Harris.

“We had a lot of guys out obviously, but it doesn’t feel like it because we have such a connected team,” Johnston said. “The guys on the bench were providing great energy and whatnot and I think that really helped us get fired up to play. I think we ran out of gas down the stretch.”