E-X-H-A-L-E. Take a few breaths. It wasn’t easy, at times it didn’t seem likely, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs earned their place in a seventh straight Sweet 16 with a 82-78 win over a VERY tough Memphis Tigers squad that deserved a place in the next round, if they hadn’t had the misfortune of playing the #1 team in the country.
Gonzaga faced a halftime deficit in each of its three losses this season. As a result, the Zags faced questions about their toughness—both physically and mentally—and those questions were on the table once again against a Memphis squad that didn’t play like a 9-seed.
The opening half of this basketball game was frenetic, and not in a good way for the Bulldogs. The early duels between Holmgren and Duren were fun, and Nembhard was dynamic in the opening minutes, but as the minutes ticked by Memphis seized firm control of the game.
Holmgren’s foul trouble didn’t help the situation. When he sat down with his second foul, the teams were locked in a tight duel with a point separating them. Without Holmgren as a deterrent in the paint, Gonzaga’s defense lost its teeth and also lost a significant rebounding presence which played right into Memphis’s hands.
The Tigers collected offensive rebounds in the first half with dispiriting regularity, using their quickness and length to beat the Zags to the ball far too often. Would a box out have been nice? For sure. But, that would have made things easier for Gonzaga which was not in the cards for this game.
I don’t know why it was surprising, considering everything he has done in his career to date, but Drew Timme’s personal 11-point scoring run to open the second half was not something I expected to see after how the first half unfolded. Whatever was (actually, not the post-game cliffsnotes censored version) said during halftime is between Timme, the team, and God, but it did the trick.
The Zags looked like a completely different team in the second half. Timme played like the greatest basketball player to ever walk the earth, playing like the leader and All-American that Gonzaga has depended on for the last two seasons, and Gonzaga erased a nearly perfect first half from Memphis in about three minutes as the 10-point difference between the teams at halftime disappeared faster than Randy Bennett’s hairline.
The Holmgren and Timme duo functioned as intended. Timme did the heavy lifting on offense while Holmgren held things down the fort on the defensive end. Nembhard pushed the pace at every opportunity with different results than the woeful first half, punctuated by a near-full court pass to a back-stepping Timme who caught the ball and laid it in off the glass with his back to the rim all in one motion. It was almost too fast of a sequence for the camera to keep up.
The backcourt duo of Bolton and Nembhard were not outdone by their frontcourt counterparts, Both produced a bevy of HUUUGGEEEE shots throughout the game to keep Gonzaga in it when things weren’t looking good, and to help Gonzaga pull away in the closing minutes and put the game on ice from the free throw line.
Give credit to the Tigers as well. Penny Hardaway’s team figured things out over the last two months, and in this game played like the team many envisioned when they opened the season ranked No. 12. They gave the Zags everything they wanted, and took them to the brink, but in the end the Bulldogs were too much.
Now that the opening weekend is in the books, Gonzaga will look to repeat the feat next week in San Francisco as they prepare for Arkansas.