Gonzaga’s week as an honorary member of the Big East got off to a fun start in a 91-74 win over #25 Creighton. The Bluejays led at the half, but the Zags rode their hot shooting and stifling defense to pull away in a dominant second half.
It was a career night for a trio of Zags as Silas Melson (21pts, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals), Zach Norvell Jr. (21pts, 6 rebounds), and Killian Tillie (22pts and 8 rebounds) all took turns reeling off impressive runs to secure individual career highs in scoring. Johnathan Williams III added 15 points and 5 rebounds.
I got the sense that the Jesuit Jamboree (I don’t know if that is the official name, but if it’s not, it should be) flew under the radar in the national consciousness, which is too bad because these two teams provided an entertaining and high level game that deserved greater publicity than it received.
Creighton arrived in Spokane with great confidence after a strong showing at the Hall of Fame Classic in which it beat ranked (at the time) UCLA and gave Baylor all it could handle. The Bluejays and Bulldogs play similar uptempo styles with an affinity for the three-ball. All of that was on display as the teams combined for 50 three-point attempts, but it was Gonzaga who found another gear to knock off a talented Creighton squad that controlled the opening half.
Creighton looked very comfortable for much of the first 20 minutes as it dictated the physicality of the game and maintained control of the flow of play en route to shooting 58.1% from the field including 7-14 from the arc.
Gonzaga switched back and forth from a man to zone defense, but no matter what Mark Few tried, Greg McDermott seemed to have an answer. The Jays adroitly used slip-n-rolls throughout the game’s first 10 minutes to get easy layups, then capitalized on the space created on the perimeter once the Zags adjusted to showcase their shooting ability. The talented backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas were headaches for Gonzaga’s defense, particularly in the first half, as they combined for 39 points.
For their part, the Zags took some time to get their offense going, looking a bit out of sorts during the opening minutes as Creighton was effective at controlling the paint for long stretches. With the hot-shooting Josh Perkins saddled with early foul trouble and Gonzaga struggling to find its offensive rhythm, Silas Melson (16 points in the first) took matters into his own hands and didn’t miss a single shot in the opening half to keep the Zags within seven points at the break 44-37.
Gonzaga came out of the locker room with a different edge and almost instantly erased its deficit with a 20-4 run through the first six and a half minutes of the second stanza. The defense that looked flummoxed throughout stretches in the opening 20 minutes was quick to close out on Creighton’s shooters and stop penetration. The increase in defensive intensity sparked the offense as the Zags punished the Jays in transition before Zach Norvell Jr. got on one of his patented heaters.
Norvell had a tough first half, missing his first six three point attempts before getting himself going by consistently getting to the rim in the second half. After converting on a pair of drives, Norvell drained a pair of threes from either wing to put Gonzaga ahead by double-digits for the first time in the game with 11:32 left.
To its credit, Creighton didn’t immediately fade into the darkness despite the massive run spurring The Kennel into full roar. Thomas, Foster, and Ronnie Harrell did their best to keep Creighton in the game but Killian Tillie figuratively and literally flexed on the Jays on both ends of the floor before capping a personal 6-0 run with a thunderous dunk over Martin Krampelj.
The Zags closed out the game without further issue and Mark Few should feel good about the team’s depth and balance despite missing Corey Kispert who sat out with a sprained ankle suffered on Wednesday against Incarnate Word. Kispert’s status remains day-to-day and he was on the bench with a walking boot.
Gonzaga dips back into the Big East when it squares off against Villanova next Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.