Rivalry games are always full of surprises and they always seem to defy expectations. That was exactly the case tonight in Pullman as the Bulldogs won an extremely odd game over in-state rival Washington State. After a very sloppy first half, the Bulldogs trailed the Cougars by four. Behind incredible efforts by Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, and Mike Hart, the Bulldogs built what seemed to be an insurmountable 8-10 point lead midway through the second half. Washington State would not go quietly against the talented Bulldogs. DaVonte Lacy and Brock Motum did everything in their power down the stretch to secure a victory in front of the home crowd. In the final seconds, Lacy hit a relatively uncontested layup to seemingly send the game to overtime but Kevin Pangos had other ideas. With a few seconds left, the Canadian point guard used a Gonzaga-patented runner to deliver a 71-69 win for Mark Few's club.
While the above is a pretty good thirty second summary, this game had plenty more oddities that made it such a close matchup. First and foremost, it was a very slow start for the Zags on the road. Up until about the seven minute mark, only Gary Bell and Elias Harris had scored for Gonzaga. The two combined for 21 of Gonzaga's 27 points in the first half as the Bulldogs went into the half down by four.
The second half went like many GU fans were expecting. With any rivalry game, the first half is typically close, especially when the underdog is at home. Emotions run high and teams play above and beyond expectation. The second half finally displayed the disparity in skill that is so apparent on paper. The second half was also significantly impacted by some excellent coaching moves from Mark Few. To the bench went Guy Landry Edi and Sam Dower (who was evidently sick) and Few inserted Mike Hart and Kelly Olynyk. That duo, alongside Elias Harris was the difference tonight. Scoreless and frustrated in the first half, Olynyk was sensational in the second twenty minutes. He scored 22 points and I don't think one basket was similar to the other. Olynyk hit shots in transition, took the defender off the dribble, and even added a clutch three down the stretch. It was a career high from the Canadian post and his best performance in a Gonzaga uniform.
Along with Olynyk's breakout performance, Mike Hart and Elias Harris were remarkable. Hart has seen his minutes decline in the 2012-13 season due to the emergence of Kyle Dranginis but tonight was a great display of what makes Hart such a valuable member of the team. The guard from Oregon only took one shot but it was a big one to extend the Bulldogs lead to 11 with 7 minutes to play. Hart's contributions, as usual, were more of the 'hustle plays' type. He pulled down four rebounds and, unofficially, had one steal. He was all over the court and did a great job defending at the start of the second half. His play was a huge reason for Gonzaga winning this game.
Last but certainly not least was Gonzaga's All-America candidate. Elias Harris was great from start to finish. He finished with 23 points and 6 rebounds and continues to show that he has become a complete player. There are certainly times during games when Harris will make post moves when you look at your TV and shout 'we can do that everytime' and tonight he made drive after drive that kept the Cougars at bay.
Even though this game won't look great from a margin of victory perspective, I couldn't be happier with the test that WSU gave Gonzaga. The Bulldogs had a lot of factors against them. It was a hostile environment and there were questionable calls and this team still found a way to build a lead in the second half and eventually eek out a win over a team that was playing way over their heads. With Illinois, Baylor, Butler, and many other good teams on the horizon, games like this will be hugely beneficial.