That’s three wins against a Power Five conference’s (the conference of champions) best teams, two on the road and one on a neutral court. Gonzaga is the undisputed best team in the west.
1. Arizona’s offense never seemed to get going and I like to think it was because of the defense played by Ryan Woolridge and Joel Ayayi on Nico Mannion. Yes, Mannion had 10 assists, but several of them depended on great individual plays by Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. Missing 17 of 20 shots is a strong indicator of Mannion’s level of frustration. Gonzaga’s team defense only allowed Arizona to shoot 39% from the field and 27% from deep.
2. Mannion is a great player and everyone talks about his potential early NBA entry, but I’ll take Joel Ayayi any time. Joel had 7 assists, shot 56% from the field (15 points) and 7 rebounds. His sweet wrap around pass to Petrusev with 3 minutes left should have iced a normal contest and his great coast to coast lay-up was one of the best-looking plays of the game.
3. Credit the players for their poise and toughness but also give credit to Mark Few. His 8-man rotation went down to six players, he fought foul trouble and his team started the game very tentative and sloppy but somehow pulled out the win. Foul trouble forced him to play four guards the last five minutes of the 1st half as the team turned a four-point deficit into a halftime lead. Whatever adjustments were made at halftime allowed the Zags to dominate the first 18 minutes of the 2nd half. Finally, many coaches would have come unglued in the last two minutes of the second half, especially at Ryan Woolridge after he missed a lay-up instead of dribbling out the clock. Few calmly encouraged Woolridge giving him a smile and a thumbs up. 30 seconds later, Woolridge, his squad’s worst free throw shooter, had the confidence to sink two from the stripe to ice the game.
4. Corey Kispert’s leadership was a huge reason Gonzaga won this game. He couldn’t hit from outside in the 1st half but made two driving lay-ups at key moments to keep the Zags close. He went 4 for 7 in the second half, hit a key three with one second on the shot clock, nailed two important free throws, and hit a two in the key after Josh Green scored five straight to kill a possible momentum swing. His 18 points and 8 rebounds led the team.
5. Speaking of huge reasons Gonzaga won: Admon Gilder. His 4 for 4 from deep seemed to come at exactly the right moments, either to keep GU in the game or as daggers to kill any ‘Zona comebacks. Despite not seeming 100% physically, he had seven rebounds and played stellar defense. Hopefully he can take some time after the UNC game to heal. I look forward to seeing him demonstrate his inside game and physicality.
6. Killian Tillie was about the only bright spot in the first 4 minutes of the game and his efforts literally kept the Zags from falling into a deep early hole. He had two rebounds, a basket, a free throw and an assist as well as taking the ball up court. Kispert, Ayayi and Petrusev allowed the team to increase the lead after his ankle injury, but his being on the bench was a big reason Arizona was able to mount the furious comeback in the last two minutes.
7. Not sure if pucker factor is used outside of the military (look it up on Google if it isn’t), but mine was the highest it’s been in a long time the last two minutes of that game. Give Arizona a lot of credit for not tucking their tails between their legs when down by 16 and fighting hard until the final buzzer. Two key factors contributing to the collapse from a GU perspective: Few’s rotation down to six tired players and atrocious free throw shooting. The Zags are shooting 66% from the line for number 282 in the country. Leading the country in free throws, Pepperdine at .855%. As if I needed another reason to dislike Romar.
8. Drew Timme gave the team a huge boost in the first half going 3 for 5 from the field including two offensive rebounds and putting one back. If he comes back next season with 10 lbs of muscle and two more inches of vertical he’s going to be a monster.
9. Speaking of monsters, Zeke Nnaji dominated the interior for much of the game. His eight offensive rebounds (five in the first half) were among the brightest spots for Arizona in the game. Credit Petrusev, Tillie and Timme for keeping him in check as much a possible. I’m hoping Gonzaga can come up with a huge, long-armed physical presence who can dominate the paint next season. Someone who knows the team and the offense, has spent a year building his body under Travis Knight and possesses a distinctive hair style.
10. After UNC on Wednesday, Gonzaga finishes the year with home games against Eastern Washington and Detroit Mercy. While EWU is pretty good and Detroit Mercy not so much here’s hoping Gilder, Watson, Tillie and Woolridge get the rest and recovery they need before the conference schedule begins on 2 Jan.