The Battle in Seattle is technically dubbed as a "neutral-site" game, but it's honestly just a way to get 16,000+ Zags into one stadium. The crowd looked to be rocking as our boys came out hoping to notch a nice W to close out the non-conference schedule (minus the SMU game in February).
Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer led the way for the Zags as Tennessee had no answer for our dynamic duo. Domas had another career night with 36 points, 16 rebounds, and a handful of Sabonis Smashes while Kyle scored 24 points with a couple of threes hit from Steph Curry range. The Zags' size advantage over the Volunteers was very evident, especially in the first half when the Bulldogs totally controlled the paint.
During the first half, Tennessee only looked effective when they were able to get into their pace-and-space offense. The Vols half-court offense struggled as they failed to handle the Zags' length inside. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs offense looked very crisp working inside-out as the team shot 51.5% from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
The biggest reason for Gonzaga's big first half lead was both teams' uncharacteristic performance in the turnover category. Tennessee closed the first half with seven turnovers while the Zags only had one. The Vols entered the game as one of the best teams at taking care of the ball as they ranked 9th in the nation in turnover rate (14.5%). Gonzaga, on the other hand, ranked 279th with a 20.5% turnover rate.
The second half, however, proved to be a different game as the Zags continued the Jekyll and Hyde trend they've exhibited all season.
Kyle Wiltjer opened up the second half with an absolutely silly off-balance three as the shot clock expired. Those are the types of possessions that can crush a defender's spirit because you do everything right and still can't catch a break.
The Vols were much more aggressive on the defensive end in the second half as they sent guys to help and dig on Domas everytime he initiated a post move. The increased defensive tenacity also created better opportunities for them on the other end as their offense works better when they can push the pace and get a shot off quickly.
On the other side of the ball, Gonzaga has slumped in the second half of numerous games this year. I really don't know what the root cause is. Basketball is a game of runs, and it's hard to dominate an opponent for 40 minutes, but the Zags need to develop a killer instinct to put these types of games away sooner.
Tennessee retook the lead with 9 minutes left in the game despite being down by as much as 19 points. Domas bailed out the Zags from that point on as his tenacity really carried the offense when nothing else was working. Domas and Kyle's chemistry was on display on a sweet dime from Kyle with under four minutes left to go for a Sabonis Smash that helped our boys recapture the momentum.
Fortunately, the defense was able to stall Tennessee's offense in the closing minutes and some excellent free throw shooting by Kyle and Domas iced the game. Gonzaga takes on the streaking Pepperdine Waves (7-4, 5 straight wins) Monday night to open up WCC play.
- Eric McClellan's free throw shooting makes me want to cry. However, his willingness to attack the basket is a much-needed element from the backcourt and he had a savage dunk late in the first half. He was the only guard to score in double-figures with 13 points.
- Josh Perkins never seemed to get a foothold in the game as he battled foul trouble which prevented him from making any kind of meaningful contributions.
- Midway through the first half, Domas had a sick pass out of a low-block post up to a cutting Kyle Dranginis. Dranginis didn't finish but the pass showed off how complete an offensive player Domas has become this year.
- Interesting note, the sideline reporter shared an admission from Domas that his body wasn't ready for the extra banging his increased workload has brought since Przemek's injury. Domas' game is powered by his passion and tenacity and it's not surprising that his style of play would wear him down in extended minutes. But, whatever extra conditioning work he's doing is working as his game has really blossomed when his team needed him most.
- The guards have to find a higher level of consistency to help out Kyle and Domas. Bryan Alberts, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, and Kyle Dranginis combined for 10 points on 4-14 shooting tonight. The bigs are going to be exhausted by March if they have to come up with at least 50 combined points in every single game for the team to have a chance to win.