Somehow, someway, the shorthanded Gonzaga Bulldogs found a way to scrape together an 83-79 win at the War Memorial over the USF Dons.
It wasn’t a pretty victory, by any means, as the Zags struggled in both phases for extended stretches of the game without Killian Tillie in the lineup. The Dons did an excellent job of executing their game plan, disrupting Gonzaga’s offense and pushing their visitors to the brink of defeat. But in the end, Gonzaga displayed why it has ascended to the game’s elite, winning a game that it frankly had no business of winning.
Freshman forward Drew Timme earned his player of the game honors, producing a career high 19 points to go along with a strong all-around effort including a big defensive stop for the Zags in the closing seconds of the game to seal the victory. Filip Petrusev led all scorers with 23 points, while Joel Ayayi (12 points), Corey Kispert (11 points), and Admon Gilder (11 points) rounded out the double figit scoring.
USF pulled a Gonzaga, utilizing a balanced offensive attack with five players in double figures to nearly pull off the upset.
Gonzaga had its high-low offense working early, opening the game with some nice work between Timme and Petrusev in the post. Those two were the only ones who had it going, however, as the rest of the rotation was outplayed pretty handily by a USF squad looking to put the pelt of the nation’s #2 team on its wall.
The Dons raced ahead of the Zags early with a flurry of three-pointers that allowed them to establish a 12-point lead midway through the first half. Gonzaga’s defense, which had been trending upwards over the last month, was disorganized and largely ineffective at stopping USF’s backcourt.
Gonzaga’s offense struggled to pick up the slack for its leaking defense, as the backcourt appeared uncomfortable against USF’s aggressive perimeter pressure and became largely reliant on Petrusev and Timme to carry the scoring load. Ayayi, Kispert and Woolridge combined for only seven points in a largely anonymous first half for the trio.
Considering the extent of its struggles, it was a minor miracle that Gonzaga only found itself down 35-43 at the break.
The Dons must have felt like they let an opportunity slip away by not putting a struggling Gonzaga squad away. The Zags cleaned up some of their defensive deficiencies in the second half with much better on-ball pressure and focused effort. At the other end of the floor, they continued to ride the duo of Petrusev and Timme before a pair of threes from Kispert midway through the half—his first two made field goals of the game—gave Gonzaga its first lead since the 18-minute mark in the first half.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Zags, however, as they continued to shoot themselves in the foot at ill-advised times. Sloppy turnovers persisted, and a foul by Kispert of Jordan Ratinho at the three-point line gifted USF three free points right in the midst of the comeback.
The knockout run never came due to the self-inflicted errors, and Gonzaga was forced to battle as the two teams exchanged baskets for the final 10 minutes of action. A pair of timely threes from Ayayi, the continued efforts of Petrusev and Timme (who was a giant in the closing minutes), and (gasp) converting free throws allowed Gonzaga to pull out the W even though it trailed as late as the 1:55 mark in the game.
It never came easy for the Zags, but you have to admire their toughness and poise under pressure on a day when they clearly did not have their best stuff. There’s a reason why this program has achieved incredible success over the years, and we saw that reason on display again in this game.