The No. 1 Gonzaga University men’s basketball team (6-0) defeated the No. 2 UCLA Bruins (5-1) by a final score of 83-63 Tuesday night at the Empire Classic in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga started the Empire Classic off with a victory over Central Michigan University, 107-54. Chet Holmgren led the Zags with 19 points and five rebounds while shooting 7-for-9 in the largest margin of victory this season.
The rematch of last year’s Final Four matchup was highly anticipated, with Tuesday’s game marking the eighth time in the 21st century that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams have played during the regular season.
After a tired first couple minutes with Drew Timme scoring the few points, the Zags took a strong lead against the Bruins. Growing their lead to 16 points within the first eight minutes, a combination of UCLA’s uncharacteristically weak defense and diverse offense gave the Zags a push.
Senior guard Andrew Nembhard led the Zags on offense, while freshman center Chet Holmgren helped hold off the Bruins on defense with three blocks and four rebounds in the first half.
“[Holmgren] is a very driven and intelligent player, and everyone needs to understand that he is a work in progress,” said head coach Mark Few. “He’s better tonight than he was a week ago.”
Throughout the first half, UCLA’s transitional defense was lacking, allowing the Zags to put up 18 points by layup. Though their offense was active, the Bruins had a hard time following through and had a 27.1 shot percentage.
Once the Zags got the lead, they didn’t lose it. Gonzaga led UCLA 45-25 at halftime, establishing a 20-point lead that never faltered. Nembhard led the board with 13 points, while Holmgren and senior guard Rasir Bolton each put up nine.
UCLA’s Jamie Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins with his aggressive offense and rebounding, but the team was incomparable to how it played in the Final Four game. Still missing lead guard Cody Riley from an injury in the season opener, the Bruins have been lacking the momentum they had last year. UCLA had a 57.6 shot percentage for the Final Four game compared to a 34.8 shot percentage for the full game Tuesday night.
Going into the second half, the Zags were predicted by ESPN to have a 98.8 win percentage, having essentially defeated the Bruins in the first half with their explosive offense.
Staying consistent on offense throughout the start of the second half, the Zags led 67-45 going into the final 10 minutes.
“UCLA did a great job with how they played us and switched their coverages,” Few said. “They have a real toughness about them, so it was important for us to get those baskets before they could get set up.”
The second half finished with little worry even as UCLA adapted its defense to better match the intensity of the Zags’ offense. Nembhard led with 24 points — almost beating his personal game record of 25 points — five rebounds and six assists, while Holmgren and Timme’s combined offense put up 33 points. Sophomore guard Julian Strawther finished with nine rebounds, with him and Hunter Sallis handling the rebounds on defense.
Finishing the night shooting 56% from the field, the Zags proved their spot as the No. 1 college basketball team. The Zags will stay in Las Vegas for a game against No. 5 Duke on Friday at 7 p.m.
“We don’t go out to prove stuff to people, we go out to prove stuff to ourselves,” Timme said.