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Gonzaga rewind: Bulldogs shore up defense in second half against Santa Clara, Dusty Stromer continues to settle in

Santa Clara Broncos center Francisco Caffaro (10) battles in the paint under pressure from Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Ryan Nembhard (0) 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 debuted its three-big lineup on Jan. 18 against Pepperdine, removing freshman guard Dusty Stromer from the starting unit in favor of the size and experience of junior forward Ben Gregg.

The impetus for that move? Mark Few was probably mulling it for a while, but Gonzaga’s coach finally pulled the trigger after watching Santa Clara pound the Bulldogs on the glass in a 77-76 road loss at the Leavey Center.

The Broncos picked up another win in the rebounding column in game two, but it wasn’t as glaring – Santa Clara was plus-13 when they met last month, compared to plus-1 on Saturday – and Gonzaga got the result that mattered, picking up a 94-81 victory at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“Clearly I feel like our offense is more purposeful and we have a better understanding, especially when we play the three bigs,” Few said. “We had that out there at times during that game and it was a little bit disjointed. Ryan (Nembhard) is used to playing now with Graham (Ike) and Graham’s used to play with Ben and kind of all those different combinations.”

Gonzaga’s midseason change continues to pay off.

Gregg, despite not reaching double figures in the scoring column, was solid on the glass, grabbing six rebounds to go with six points and five assists. Stromer, meanwhile, continues to grow in his new role and gave the Zags valuable minutes off the bench.

For the second time this week, the freshman gets a mention in our day-after rewind. We also take a look at how Gonzaga sharpened its defense in the second half against Santa Clara and revisit another aspect of Anton Watson’s special Senior Night.

Buckling down

Even after holding Santa Clara’s Adama Bal and Carlos Marshall Jr. – players who combine to average nearly 27 points per game – to zero points on 0-of-4 shooting, Gonzaga didn’t necessarily enter halftime with a commanding lead.

The Broncos’ less-heralded frontcourt picked up much of the slack on the offensive end, with forwards and centers combining to score 41 of Santa Clara’s 46 first-half points. That included a 13-point half from 6-foot-10 Johnny O’Neil, who hurt the Zags with a trio of 3-pointers, and 18 more from 7-footers Christoph Tilly and Francisco Caffaro, who combined to go 7 of 7 from the field.

“We just have not ran into teams with that size and that willingness really to go at us inside and out like they did,” Few said.

Gonzaga’s halftime adjustments included closing out on O’Neil from the 3-point line and limiting easy looks for Santa Clara’s bigs around the paint. That freed up Bal and Marshall Jr., who combined on 16 second-half points, but ultimately worked in Gonzaga’s favor as the Bulldogs held O’Neil, Tilly and Caffaro to only 13 points after the break.

Santa Clara scored 35 points in the second half after tallying 46 in the first and the Broncos’ field goal percentage dropped from 54% to 37%.

“It’s definitely tough, they’ve got a lot of big guys, strong guys,” Watson said. “But I think we have the right mindset kind of going into the second half of, they’re going to get tired and we’ve got to win the glass in the second half because I think we were losing the first half on the boards.

“I think our guards did a good job of too of coming in and helping us rebound. I think we need that from them. Then Benny, Graham, myself, we’ve got to hold it down and make sure the big guys don’t get any putbacks.”

Stromer settling in

In his first two games coming off the bench, Stromer handled his new assignment as well as the Zags could’ve hoped. The freshman totaled 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists while playing 53 minutes at Pepperdine and San Diego.

Then came a lull.

Stromer scored 15 total points over the next nine games, making 4 of 22 shots from the field during that stretch while watching his minutes fluctuate. The best example of that came during a two-game home stint against Saint Mary’s and Portland, when Stromer logged a season-low eight minutes against the Gaels before playing 31 against the Pilots.

The Southern California native rediscovered his early-season form and seemingly regained confidence last week against Portland and Santa Clara, scoring 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field while contributing eight rebounds in GU’s latest conference wins.

“In fact I told the team afterwards, that’s the Dusty we recruited, that’s the guy who started the year for us, making plays like that and just doing everything,” Few said. “That’s the beauty of Dusty. It’s not the 3s, it’s the flying around getting putbacks, making plays on defense, just doing everything. He fills every box. We needed everything tonight because we got in a little bit of foul trouble.”

Things could’ve gone south for Gonzaga when Nembhard picked up his third foul with under 16 minutes left, but Stromer replaced the point guard and scored eight points while grabbing two rebounds over the next five minutes to help the Bulldogs maintain a double-digit lead.

Even when Nembhard returned with approximately 10 minutes remaining, Few elected to keep Stromer on the floor and didn’t sub the freshman out of the game until the 3-minute, 18-second mark.

“I just hope that gets his confidence going, because he ain’t been playing the way he’s wanted to play so it was much-needed for him,” Hickman said.

Passing a great

Normally we wouldn’t highlight a Gonzaga player moving up to No. 25 on the school’s all-time scoring list, but we’re making an exception this time.

Watson’s home finale was special for a handful of reasons. Among them, the fifth-year senior forward surpassed one of the program’s greats, John Stockton, on the career scoring list and now has 1,352 points after a 13-point outing against Santa Clara.

Stockton, a Spokane native who, like Watson, attended Gonzaga Prep before moving on to a standout career at Gonzaga, coached the senior forward’s AAU team in middle school. Watson’s said on multiple occasions that Stockton, who still resides in Spokane and owns a basketball gym close to GU’s campus, continues to play a mentorship role for the fifth-year player.

“He’s going to get some smack talk, I’m going to send him a text right after this,” Watson said after a reporter informed the forward he’d moved past Stockton. “I didn’t even know that, but he’s always watching from behind the scenes. If I’m playing bad or doing something not right, he’ll send me a little text just to remind me. That relationship, it’s always going to be there.”

Stockton and Watson are the only members of another exclusive Gonzaga club, both recording 200 career steals. Watson is unlikely to catch Stockton on the steals list, needing 56 more to tie the NBA Hall of Famer.

“It goes back to John coaching him in AAU and all the coaches that were with him, his high school coach,” Few said of Watson. “They did a great job because he’s not a one-trick pony. He does everything really, really well and it’s getting more and more rare to find players like that, quite frankly.”