Gonzaga's first conference loss may have come at the end of January against San Francisco but the slide truly began three games before that against Pepperdine. That game saw the Zags sleepwalk on defense and let Pepperdine star guard Keion Bell go for a career-high 37 points. Tonight, Gonzaga paid a visit to the Waves' home gym in Malibu and brought with them a renewed defensive intensity after dropping a stunner to LMU. The result was a dominating road win as the Zags took down Pepperdine by a final tally of 72-54.
There was no mistaking Gonzaga's game plan tonight. If you remember that first game against Pepperdine, a huge reason why Keion Bell went off was because the Zags were constantly a step slow rotating over and playing help side defense. Tonight was completely different. Mark Few had his team thinking defense first and it paid off. Bell still walked away with 17 points but shot a mediocre 5-13 from the floor and turned the ball over 3 times. It doesn't take too long to realize the root cause of Bell's issues. Look no further than Robert Sacre and Will Foster. Both were terrific defensively combining for nine blocked shots and even more alterations. Earlier in the season, my biggest qualm with Will and Rob was the fact that they were poor shot blockers for their size. Instead of luring guards in to set up the block, they would use their bodies far too much and get in foul trouble. Tonight they improved on that to completely dominate the interior. When you combine those two's shot blocking abilities with Manny and Meech's hawking perimeter defense, it's pretty clear to see what the Waves only scored 19 first half points.
While Gonzaga's defensive effort stole the show, you had to also be impressed with the way they began the game offensively. Where as they were sloppy and a step slow against LMU, the Bulldogs' starting five was all over the court tonight and never gave Pepperdine a shot to even contest the game. The lead ballooned to 18 points within the first seven minutes and some of Gonzaga's stars came through with some excellent performances. Continue reading after the jump for more on the Bulldogs' bounce back win.
Remember how bad Gonzaga was offensively against LMU? You probably do but to be quite honest, the first half tonight really made me forget pretty quickly. The Zags got off to an insanely hot start, starting the game 10-10 from the floor. They didn't miss until the 11 minute mark and every starter scored during the stretch. Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray showed especially short memories tonight as they rebounded nicely from their awful nights against LMU. Bouldin finished the game with 18 points on 7-11 shooting and added three rebounds and five assists to the stat sheet. Long story short, it was a typical Matt night. His 36 minutes played really baffled me as this game was over by halftime but I've given up on understanding Gonzaga's substitution patterns. Steven Gray only played 26 minutes and got off to another hot start. He wound up with 12 points but came out with a great attitude and sparked this team to their big lead. Demetri Goodson continued to show improvement tonight. He only scored five points but he once again played solid defense on the perimeter and dished out three assists in the face of zero turnovers. Meech also missed out on at least three more assists due to some poor shooting from his teammates. His recent stretch of games has been very positive as he has begun to settle into his role.
Moving down into the low post was also another positive for Gonzaga offensively. Especially in the second half, Elias Harris began to regain his shooting touch that really went missing the past few games. Harris went 5-6 from the floor finishing with 13 points and a team-high six rebounds. He's at his best when he is scoring in a variety of ways and that's what happened in Malibu. Elias dropped in a three-pointer, a running hook for an and-on, and a couple classic low post scores as well. Harris' front court mate has already been lauded for his defense but I also thought Robert showed tremendous improvement offensively. He works at his best when he catches the ball and simply reacts. We saw that a few times tonight where he caught it and in one motion was taking it to the hoop. Those moves nearly always result in made baskets or fouls on the opposing team. Rob finished with 12 points tonight, among them were a few nice hook shots and just generally quick post moves that utilized his strength. He got in trouble a few times with putting the ball on the ground or hesitating and that led to his four turnovers and four missed shots but overall it was hard to be disappointed with Rob's game this evening.
The utilization of the bench tonight was perfect by the staff. Two players have stood out off the bench during conference play: Mangisto Arop and Will Foster. They were rewarded tonight as they each played minutes in the teens and once again brought something to the flow. Will's three blocks and Manny's team-high six rebounds show what it means to be a bench player when you are on a team with plenty of scoring power. They came in, disrupted Pepperdine's flow, and provided quality minutes without causing the team to miss a beat. Kelly Olynyk was the only other bench player to really make an impact tonight. KO finished with a respectable four points. I was hoping for more of a bench presence in the second half but that wasn't to be as the starters really dominated the minutes played in this one.
If there is one real area for concern tonight it has to be rebounding. The Zags were massacred on the boards tonight by the Waves, ending up with twelve less rebounds. If you are looking for a disgusting stat of the game, look no further than Pepperdine's 24 offensive rebounds compared to GU's five. This plagued the Bulldogs in the second half and was a huge reason why the lead never really grew upwards of 30 points. Before you go running around and calling Gonzaga a terrible rebounding team, you should know that Pepperdine missed a grand total of 51 shots where as the Zags only attempted 51 shots (making 27 of them). This is a big cause for the discrepancy in rebounds but the fact that our bigs couldn't corral more of their 51 misses is a big alarming.
Three home games now separate Gonzaga from another regular season West Coast Conference title. The Zags will return to action Thursday against the Broncos of Santa Clara.