When Nemanja Mitrovic ripped the cords from three to give Portland a 17-4 lead after four minutes, most Gonzaga fans had their faces squarely placed in their palms. The Zags, who have found a number of unique ways to lose ballgames this season, have had a major weakness in terms of defending the three point line. They finished with an 11-21 mark from deep. This type of stat typically equates to a Gonzaga loss. Tonight, however, the Bulldogs showed some resiliency, got the deficit down to six at halftime thanks to the continued solid play of Rob Sacre and possibly David Stockton's best game of his young Gonzaga career. The redshirt freshman finished with 12 points and six assists on the evening as Gonzaga was able to upend the Pilots of Portland, 67-64.
The first half of play was abysmal to put it kindly. The Zags were inept on offense, slow in rotation on defense, and Portland came out and simply knocked down shots. Steven Gray was struggling to get going, Elias Harris was turning the ball over in excess, and the whole offensive flow was disrupted on the road in Portland. Mark Few then entered David Stockton into the ball game and, after tinkering with Kelly Olynyk for a few moments, also entered Sam Dower. Both played solid roles in keeping the margin down during the first half. Sam hit a few key jumpers midway through the first half and David made a number of plays while minimizing risk.
Mark Few then did something quite out of character for himself in the second half: he shuffled the lineup. Benched were Demetri Goodson and Elias Harris and in were Stockton and Sam Dower. Manny Arop also started the half in place of Mathis Monninghoff. By the 14 minute mark in the second half, the Zags had tied the ball game up and by the eight minute mark, Gonzaga had completely flipped the game on Portland and got the lead up to ten.
It wasn't over, however. Read on after the jump for more...
Gonzaga's rise in the second half wasn't merely a product of Elias and Meech being benched and the arrival of Stockton. It was, in essence, a team effort. Marquise Carter checked in early in the second half (and played 28 solid minutes) and hit a big three and followed that up with a layin and a jumper. The juco transfer finished with seven points and three boards. Elias Harris and Manny Arop both woke up a bit in the second half offensively and provided the team with a boost in their own way. Tonight was a cumulative effort and was something this team needed in a hostile environment against a dangerous team.
A lot of the credit must go to the way this game was managed by the staff in the second half. When Kelly Olynyk entered the game before Sam Dower early on, I thought we were heading down another mind-bender. However, Few's management of the rotation and his understanding of what's working was spot on tonight. Max and I have been campaigning for a shorter rotation all season long and tonight was an ideal example. Seven players played meaningful minutes this evening. Olynyk, Goodson, and Monninghoff spent a majority of their time on the bench while Mathis Keita never got off of it. Steven Gray got the chance to rest a bit and the Zags were functioning very well without him. The best part may have been that he stuck with Stockton, however, Few has the tendency to insert Meech into situations where he isn't the best option and Stockton proved tonight that there are teams where he is simply the ideal match up.
Tonight's rock, which has been the case in a number of games, was center Robert Sacre. Rob's 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots kept this team in the game. He was efficient at 7-13 and, although he could make a few more "bunnies" did a nice job around the rim. He's never going to have a plethora of post moves at Gonzaga, I've come to realize, but his touch around the basket has had a meteoric rise and he is just playing smarter basketball. Last year's Rob would have gathered three early fouls against Sikma and Co. Instead, he was very patient and very smooth in the post. His night was capped off by a huge blocked three point attempt after missing consecutive free throws to all but seal the game for Gonzaga.
With the win, Gonzaga moves to 15-8 on the season. Next up is 16-6 Memphis at the Spokane Arena. The Tigers will come in with a little extra edge after back-to-back losses versus Marshall and Tulsa.