Thanks to sunny skies, warm blue waters, and the comforting surrounds of a hotel ballroom, the Gonzaga Bulldogs made it splashy early and often in a 94-69 win over the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in their opener at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Corey Kispert led all scorers with 28 points (9-11 FG, 7-8 3PA) in 29 minutes of action, and Joel Ayayi added his own brilliant performance with 21 points (9-12 FG, 3-3 3PA), 12 rebounds, and 5 assists. Filip Petrusev (16 points, 7 rebounds) and Drew Timme (11 points, 7 rebounds) anchored Gonzaga’s frontcourt. Artur Konontsuk land LaDavius Draine ed Southern Miss with 19 points.
Gonzaga’s tournament in Atlantis got off to a less than ideal start as Killian Tillie was held out of this game due to “knee soreness” aka load management. His replacement in the starting lineup, Anton Watson, joined him on the bench just 45 seconds into the game after he rolled his ankle and looked very uncomfortable leaving the floor—though he was able to walk off under his own power.
In their absence, the formerly struggling Kispert found his shooting stroke, hitting four 3’s early in the game to ignite an offense that would go on to shoot 69% (nice) from the field in the first half. Kispert was mired in a deep slump entering this tournament, but you would’ve never guessed it as he ran down the court waving his suddenly hot hand. His shooting carried over into the second half as well, following up his 14-point first with 12 more (3-3 from three) in the second.
Down two big pieces in the rotation, Timme and Ayayi stepped up in a big way off the bench. Timme slid into a frontcourt partnership with Petrusev without missing a beat, as both big men exposed the Golden Eagles’ interior defense and lack of size.
For his part, Ayayi produced a monster performance that underscores just how important he has become for Gonzaga this season. There simply aren’t many teams in the country that can bring a dynamic weapon like Ayayi off the bench who can play in a wide variety of lineup compositions and impact the game equally with or without the ball in his hands.
While Gonzaga certainly made its Atlantis opener look easy, it didn’t come without a cost. After losing Watson so early in the contest, Gilder departed the game about a minute into the second half with a possible leg injury and never returned to the bench. His backcourt mate, Ryan Woolridge, limped off the floor himself with approximately six minutes left in the game and was seen working with a trainer on a stationary bike while in apparent discomfort.
Which Zags will be available for Thursday’s game and how long they will be available are unanswered questions at the moment. What we do know is that the training staff will have its hands full in one of the most important weeks of the season for Gonzaga.