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Gonzaga grinds out a tough win on the road against USF

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It was a back and forth affair, but a battle-tested Bulldog squad didn’t flinch when the game got tight.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at San Francisco Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The top spot in the WCC remains firmly in the hands of the Gonzaga Bulldogs after a 96-83 win over the San Francisco Dons at the War Memorial Gymnasium. The importance of this matchup in Gonzaga’s schedule grew throughout the season thanks to USF’s strong start and ascendence to the position of second-best team in the WCC. The Dons looked up to the task against the #5 team in the country for much of the night, but just didn’t have enough to finish the job in the end against a Gonzaga team that has already been tested against the best teams in college basketball this season.

The Zags, who have been in a lot of tight games against elite talent, simply did a better job of keeping their composure and executing down the stretch. Head coach Kyle Smith and his USF squad will be left to rue the missed opportunity to steal one against the Bulldogs, but the talented interior duo of Brandon Clarke (24 points, 9 rebounds) and Rui Hachimura (21 points, 6 rebounds), along with the steadying presence of Josh Perkins (16 points, 4 assists) made all the difference in the end.

Both teams had spells where they held control of the game in a see-sawing opening half. Killian Tillie, who won the WCC’s Tournament MVP award in 2018, had his best game since returning from injury last weekend, scoring 12 of his 14 points in the first half while showcasing the embarrassment of riches that Mark Few is enjoying now that he has a full complement of players to choose from. Gonzaga was able to build a 31-21 lead with just under seven minutes to play in the first half, but was plagued by sloppy play to close out the half and a resilient USF team that was looking to establish its bona fides.

Gonzaga won the first 40 seconds out of the break, as a pair of buckets in the paint along with a block on the defensive end forced San Francisco into a timeout before anyone could break a sweat. The quick momentum stopper allowed the Dons to regroup, and from there on out it the game featured a fairly even exchange of blows for much of the next 18 minutes.

Every time Gonzaga looked to be stitching a few baskets together to create some separation, the Dons answered with big baskets of their own which encouraged a fan base that was itching for an opportunity to get off their plush couches on the second level of the gymnasium and storm the court. Senior guard Frankie Ferrari proved to be the straw that stirs the drink for USF, and was a dynamic threat as he frequently challenged Gonzaga’s vaunted bigs both in the paint and on the perimeter.

The Zags were in danger of getting Ferrari’d with Tillie lost for most of the second half with foul trouble and USF essentially bracketing both Rui and Clarke. Contributions were needed from other sources, but with Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert struggling to make much of an impact for most of the second half, Gonzaga’s own senior point guard answered the bell with his team in a tight spot. Josh Perkins scored all 16 of his points in the second half to buoy the offense and help the frontcourt carry the scoring burden, and Gonzaga certainly would have taken the “L” if not for his contributions.

Perkins, Clarke, and Rui kept Gonzaga in it long enough to allow Norvell and Geno Crandall to put the nail in the coffin with back-to-back threes that broke an 81-81 deadlock and killed any hope of an upset in the Bay. A heady save of a loose ball by Crandall (who was 5 feet out of bounds lol), and an alley-oop dunk in the closing seconds from Perkins and Clarke served as a nice exclamation point to a game that delivered on fan expectations, and ensured that the shakeup in the WCC this year would not extend all the way to the top.