The deck of an aircraft carrier is not your usual college basketball setting. But the USS Abraham Lincoln proved to be the appropriate setting for a hard fought game where toughness was the key ingredient for the Gonzaga Bulldogs to edge out the Michigan State Spartans 64-63.
Drew Timme played like the favorite to win the National Player of the Year award, particularly in the second half, and was the key reason why Gonzaga walked away with a W. Timme led all players with 22 points and 13 rebounds, and led the Zags with 4 assists to go with 2 blocks. In tight games with difficult scoring conditions, you need your best players to step up and be the difference. Timme was that difference in this one.
Gonzaga was fortunate to see Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton return for another year with Timme, and they were both key cogs in the second half to spur the comeback. Strawther had 13 points and 9 rebounds, while Bolton scored all 7 of his points in the second half after playing only 5 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.
The Zags struggled to get out of their own way for much of the first half. They turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, committed lots of head shaking ticky-tack fouls, and settled for too many jumpers (and certainly weren’t making many of them). Put it all together and you have a performance that didn’t feel very Gonzaga-like.
The Spartans, to their credit, clamped down Gonzaga’s transition game and induced the Zags into those jumpshots by playing disciplined basketball and disrupting Gonzaga’s entry passes to the post. But a team of Gonzaga’s talent and aspirations has the tools and the know-how to counter what Michigan State was doing. You couldn’t tell from the first half performance, and it as telling that both Mark Few and ESPN announcer alluded to a lack of toughness from the Zags in the first half.
Gonzaga started the second half much like it finished the first—making bad choices leading to a burgeoning deficit. Mark Few had to call a timeout just three minutes into the half after the Zags fell behind by 12 points. Perhaps Few used the break to introduce his players to one another since it seemed like they had never met each other before the game. Whether it was introductions or other words, the Zags played much better over the next five minutes, reeling off an 11-0 run powered by who else other than Timme.
After cutting the deficit down to a single point, the Zags inexplicably fell in love with the outside shot again which saw the next three possessions end with a missed three. Would it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that the Spartans capitalized on Gonzaga’s stubbornness and put together a 6-point buffer? Well, that’s exactly what they did.
Fortunately, for the Bulldogs, their defense was better than their shooting in the second half. Despite seeing Watson head to the bench early in the half with his 4th foul, the Zags were able to tighten up the defense with a collective effort spearheaded by Hunter Sallis who was instrumental in locking up Joey Hauser.
Timme did the rest and put his teammates on his back. It was the type of performance that postseason award voters remember when they’re filling out their ballots. It was also the type of team performance that builds the foundations for a deep tournament run in March. But Gonzaga will need to be better than they were on the USS Abraham Lincoln if they want that dream to come to fruition.