The top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs went through a whirlwind of emotions against West Virginia on Wednesday night, which seems to happen every time these two teams face. With a couple rosters full of stars, it was Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard who had his breakout game in a Gonzaga uniform. His contributions in the second half led the Bulldogs to an 87-82 victory.
The first half of this game was quite the opposite of the opener against Kansas. A slow, methodical, and plodding opening half seemed to lack a lot of energy. West Virginia got off to the early lead as both teams struggled to hit shots from all over the court. Gonzaga locked down defensively, holding the Fighting Huggy Bears scoreless for nearly five minutes and took their first lead of the game. Then potential disaster struck. Jalen Suggs drove to the basket and his left leg slipped on the floor, causing him to go down in a heap of pain. He put very little weight on that leg as he went off the court and eventually into the locker room.
Gonzaga got absolutely killed on the glass. Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe combined for 17 first half rebounds, two fewer than the Bulldogs’ entire team. Combine that with a struggling Drew Timme (1-for-9 in the first half) and the Zags looked at a 39-34 deficit at the break.
Somehow, someway, Suggs came back into the game at the under-16 timeout. Even with him limping around, Gonzaga immediately went on a 7-0 run to regain the lead. The two teams would trade leads multiple times through the second half before Joel Ayayi went to work on the offensive glass. His rebounding in the final six minutes gave Gonzaga several second chance points to keep Gonzaga’s lead in tact. Ayayi finished with a game-high 21 points to go with seven rebounds, four assists, and four steals.
It was never pretty. Suggs limped his way through the whole second half. Timme grinded his way to 17 points. The teams combined to shoot 9-for-33 from deep. Four different players fouled out, and Gonzaga didn’t exactly put on a clinic on how to finish the final 30 seconds of the game. But in the end, the difference was Nembhard. He was the best player on the floor in the second half and finished with 19 points, six assists, and five rebounds. He finished at the rim and distributed the ball brilliantly.
It felt like Kispert was relatively quiet, but you look at the box score and he put up 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting with five rebounds.
Oumar Ballo had his best performance of the season. He went an impressive 4-for-5 from the foul line and grabbed a few rebounds. He looked like he was much more comfortable, and in a game where Timme struggled and Watson was in foul trouble, Ballo picked up the slack.
We now wait to see if Suggs’ injury lingers for a period of time. He played the final 16 minutes of the game without a break and in the final seconds, he had enough bounce to block a shot, which is encouraging.
Gonzaga improves to 5-0 against West Virginia and now awaits Baylor on Saturday morning. The Zags faced their first adversity of the season with the Mountaineers’ physicality and rebounding, along with the injury to Suggs and a whole lot of whistles from the zebras. But they passed the test and are 3-0.