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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga takes early Santa Clara punches, turns in offensive masterpiece to beat Broncos 94-81

Gonzaga went through a few unpleasant film sessions after losing to Santa Clara last month at the Leavey Center.

The game tape from Gonzaga’s latest encounter with the Broncos should be much easier on the eyes.

Santa Clara’s size and physicality presented some early issues for the Bulldogs, but it was nothing they couldn’t handle in their home regular-season finale, overcoming first-half adversity to emerge with a 94-81 victory over the Broncos on Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Gonzaga players had been adamant they’d turned a corner since losing to Santa Clara in gut-wrenching fashion on Jan. 11. The Bulldogs had won 10 of 11 games since, but still felt they needed a positive result against the Broncos to validate their progress.

“We’ve changed a lot,” said forward Anton Watson, the lone Gonzaga player to go through pregame Senior Day processions on Saturday. “We were even watching film on that game and it was a rough film session, but coaches kept reminding us we’ve gotten better and we were just playing a lot more fluid with each other.

“Offense, that’s been clicking right now. Defense, we can do even better but defense feels like it’s clicking a little bit.”

It couldn’t come at a better time as the Bulldogs prepare for two final West Coast Conference games that could go a long way toward determining whether Gonzaga finds itself in an NCAA or NIT bracket next month.

Gonzaga (22-6, 12-2), still second in the West Coast Conference standings, now turns its attention to next week’s road trip to the Bay Area, where the Bulldogs will face third-place San Francisco (22-7, 11-3) on Thursday at the Chase Center and first-place Saint Mary’s (23-6, 14-0) on Saturday at UCU Pavilion in Moraga.

“I think we’re starting to get a real good understanding of what the game plan is with every team,” junior guard Nolan Hickman said. “I just feel like we could do even better on the defensive end, but I feel like we’ve been buckling down on a lot of teams on the defensive end. I feel like that’s been helping us in general.”

Five Gonzaga players finished in double figures, led by a fifth straight 20-point effort from Graham Ike, who scored a season-high 26 points on 9 of 13 from the field and 8 of 9 from the free throw line.

Hickman’s 3-point shooting streak continued at the Kennel, where the junior guard matched his season high with five 3-pointers – on seven attempts – and scored 20 points to go with five assists.

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nolan Hickman (11) reacts after hitting a three against the Santa Clara Broncos during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nolan Hickman (11) reacts after hitting a three against the Santa Clara Broncos during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Watson handled the emotions that came with his 67th and final game at the Kennel to score 13 points along with five rebounds. Ryan Nembhard had 17 points, six rebounds and six assists while Dusty Stromer added 10 points and four rebounds, playing key minutes off the bench in the second half.

Santa Clara opened 6 of 10 from the 3-point line and led by five points with 6 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the first half, but Gonzaga closed the frame on a 19-10 run to enter the break leading 52-46. The Bulldogs withstood a stellar first half from Santa Clara’s frontcourt, which accounted for 41 points on 16 of 18 shooting.

“They gave us everything they got there,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We had our hands full and real problems especially in the first half stopping them. Fortunately for us, our offense was clicking at a really, really high level. That is a really good basketball team. They’re big and physical. That’s one of the more physical teams and they’re built like maybe our ’17 team was.”

The Bulldogs didn’t let off pedal in the second half, even when Nembhard went to the bench at the 15-minute, 48-second mark. Stromer replaced the junior point guard and helped spearhead a 10-4 Gonzaga run, scoring five points during that stretch to help the Bulldogs extend the lead to 69-55.

Gonzaga led by double figures the rest of the way, opening up a game-high 19-point lead on a three-point play from Ike with approximately seven minutes remaining. Santa Clara starters Christoph Tilly and Adama Bal both fouled out inside the game’s final five minutes. Tilly led the Broncos with 18 points and eight rebounds.

Gonzaga scored 90 points for the seventh time this calendar year, making 34 of 60 (56%) from the field, 8 of 16 (50%) from the 3-point line and 18 of 26 (69%) from the free throw line.