Gonzaga has had a lot of players over the years that have just been a pleasure to watch when they have 'it' going on that night. Guys like Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio, Blake Stepp, and on and on have dazzled fans of this program for the past decade but there aren't many of them that I would rather watch at their peak than Steven Gray. The supremely talented junior wing scored 18 points tonight on 6-10 shooting as the Zags defeated Loyola Marymount by a margin 77-62.
Although Steven Gray might be the king of streakiness, you really have to watch games like this and realize all those headscratching moments are worth it. His stat line says it all. 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and two steals is what Steven contributed for his team tonight and they needed all of it as that fifteen-point deficit was much more narrow than you think. Loyola Marymount came out of the gates at a snail's pace tonight at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas and looked like a team that was bracing for a rout. They had five turnovers in the first three or four minutes and were really frustrated by Gonzaga's pressure defense. Gray once again had a dynamite evening on defense as did Demetri Goodson and Robert Sacre. The Lions fought back after heading into the locker room down sixteen at halftime and made a game of it in the second stanza.
For as good as Steven Gray was throughout tonight's game, the key may have been the play of Elias Harris in the second half. LMU came out very aggressive in the second half and really knocked the Zags on their butts a few times but it seemed like every big run was answered by a Harris bucket; including two from long range. He wasn't alone in making clutch baskets late however. Two guys who many think are Gonzaga's X-factors, Robert Sacre and Bol Kong, both made plays when the game was most contested. The lead dwindled down to six points before Sacre hit two very confident free throws and then Kong drilled a three pointer to extend the Gonzaga advantage back up to 11 points.
From there it was all downhill for the Bulldogs as they took down the Lions and advanced to the championship game tomorrow night. Read on after the jump to hear more of our impressions from GU-LMU...
You can no longer count the number of games Matt Bouldin has played less than 30 minutes on one hand. Gonzaga's senior guard and the West Coast Conference player of the year only managed to stay on the court for 29 minutes this evening as he was really ineffective throughout the night for the Bulldogs. From poor passing to sloppy dribbling to missed shot opportunities, nothing was really going Matt's way tonight and you have to credit the Lions. They were constantly bumping him, chipping him, and doing whatever they could to throw him off his rhythm. He was visibly frustrated that there weren't more fouls called and was obviously upset that he wasn't producing more. The overarching thing here is that we haven't really seen a solid performance from Matt since the Saint Mary's-San Diego stretch in mid-February. He's been fatigued and roughed up all season long and it is really taking it's toll in these kind of physical games. You really notice in a game like this because, even though Harris and Gray were dominant, Gonzaga really can't hit that next level without stellar performances from Matt. They will go as far as he can take them.
Aside from Steven and Elias, I came away most impressed with the way Bol Kong and Mangisto Arop played tonight. Bol's 3-7 shooting mark was a bit surprising when I checked out the box score because it seemed like he was really in control on offense all night. He made a couple great driving layups early on and showed some aggressive play which I love from him. Then he hit the huge three-pointer late to really seal the deal for the Zags. We've maintained all season long here that he must play a major role down the stretch if Gonzaga is going to go deep and tonight was exactly what I wanted from him.
I think without a doubt, I smile the most when I watch Manny Arop play. It's really hard to criticize a guy like Arop because everything he does is literally 150%. Tonight was just another example of that as Manny filled his role and helped his club when the game. It was another typical Manny stat line as he went 2-4 from the floor and pulled down eight rebounds. I think his hustle and rebounding ability is really overshadowing the fact that we have a really, really good basketball player in Manny. He's still growing into the speed of the game on offense but he makes a few plays every now and then that make you stop and realize that he has a nice shot and offensive skills set. I'm not sure how he made that driving, off-balance jumper but somehow, Manny gets it done.
It was another up and down game for Robert Sacre and Demetri Goodson. The game started out great for Meech as he scored two quick layups to get the team off to a fast start but it all kind of came apart on offense from there. He had a couple drives where as fans you just bury your head in your hands to avoid seeing a replay but also was just the victim of a few nice defensive plays where he had his shots blocked. I swear it feels like all the bad plays from him come in a 3-5 minute window where he feels the need to try and fly past everyone. Overall, I'm always a proponent of his because I believe his work on the perimeter playing defense is huge and he had to play a big role while Matt was trying to get over his losses at the craps table and Steven was battling that nasty fall and foul trouble.
I genuinely felt bad for Rob Sacre early on in this game. All season long we have seen him struggle against undersized teams because he gets in foul trouble so quickly. Tonight was no different. He had two fouls before you could blink and I really do blame two of his five fouls on him just overpowering the opposition. That first offensive foul where he was backing down Viney was bogus but the refs see this guy moving the defensive player completely off of the court and must just feel some sympathy. Sacre hit a beautiful shot to end the first half which gave the Bulldogs a quick shot of momentum and also scored four straight Gonzaga points when LMU had cut the lead into single digits late in the game. You won't be blown away by Rob's numbers and the only reason I am somewhat critical is because only having one rebound in 17 minutes is going to come back and bite this team at some point when they face a more talented team.
All in all, there were some great moments in this game and then there were some awful things about this game. Free throws were abysmal (capped off by Will's...whatever that was) and Steven Gray's difficulty hitting the rim on the front end of his attempts. The good news is that Gonzaga lives to defend their West Coast Conference crown hopefully make it ten wins in the past twelve tournaments.