Coming off an impressive victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes, Gonzaga kicked off its home schedule with consecutive matchups against the Northwestern State Demons on Monday and Tuesday. GU won the first meeting 95-57 on Monday before sweeping the series with a 95-78 win the following evening.
The first matchup between the programs featured a heavy dose of forward Corey Kispert right from the opening tip. The senior scored 11 of GU’s first 19 points, including 3-4 from beyond the arc. He would finish with a game-high 27 points.
“Luckily my first few shots went in, so I was able to be aggressive throughout the game,” Kispert said. “It’s just being in the zone, everything slows down.”
Despite the Bulldogs’ hot start, the Demons made a run of their own in the first half. Down 19-5, Carvelle Teasett brought Northwestern State within five points after a three-pointer kicked off a 10-1 scoring run for the Demons. GU would extend its lead to 14, only for it to shrink back down to single digits.
“I think [Northwestern State] did a good job of spreading us out,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “And we grew impatient on defense.”
The Demons managed to attempt 17 three-point shots, many of them uncontested, only able to convert just four times from those attempts.
A sloppy first half was followed by a dominant performance in the second. The Zags opened the period with a bang, as Jalen Suggs hit Drew Timme with a crafty pass leading to an easy two-handed dunk. Then it was Kispert’s turn to raise the roof after a steal from Andrew Nembhard led to a breakaway slam. The Demons quickly called timeout, but it was not enough to slow a 16-7 scoring run by GU.
A firm lead paved the way for younger players such as Anton Watson to showcase his talents with the second unit. The sophomore showed his offensive versatility with shots around the rim as well as attempts from beyond the arc. Watson finished with 15 points and seven rebounds despite coming off the bench to start the second half.
“Coach just told me to bring my edge and play defense and make plays,” Watson said. “It gave me a little motivation to come off the bench.”
Freshmen Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther also received quality minutes for the first time together this season. Both found success drawing fouls through aggressive drives to the basket, as they combined for 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
Coach Few emphasized the growth opportunity for his younger players such as Harris and Strawther, especially in these types of matchups.
“Our young guys need to get in there and get some minutes,” Few said. “I think we saw some good growth today.”
Monday’s victory for GU finished with them ahead by 38 points as the second half winded down.
A day’s rest brought the two teams back to the Kennel for Tuesday’s matchup for the rare doubleheader in consecutive days.
However, there would be no early lapses this time around on the defensive end, as Watson was an anchor for the Zags. Defensive anticipation from Watson led to a breakaway steal and slam dunk, followed by a blocked shot resulting in a shot clock violation moments later. The sophomore would finish with 10 points and three steals off the bench.
“I thought Anton responded well,” Few said. “He looked better on offense and he used his hands defensively.”
The Bulldogs forced the Demons into 16 first half turnovers, translating to 17 points off those mistakes.
The suffocating defense paved the way for a whopping 24-2 lead through 10 minutes of action. Much like the day prior, the Zags relied on quick strikes on the fast break. Jalen Suggs, Nemdhard and Kispert all found success in the transition off the Demons’ missed opportunities.
GU would maintain its strong pace throughout the half and take a 43-17 advantage into the break.
After being shut down for a majority of the game, the Demons’ caught fire from deep to start the second half. Jairus Robertson knocked down four shots from behind the arc, including one from well past the three-point line. Trenton Massner and Jovan Zelenbaba also shot a combined 5-6 from range, and GU’s lead was cut to 11 points midway through the half.
“We were really bad defensively in the second half,” Few said. “[Northwestern State] really torched us from three and spread us out.”
Drew Timme would ultimately be the catalyst with 18 second half points, most of which coming from down in the low post and pick-and-roll game. The sophomore would finish with a game-high 25 points while securing the victory for the Zags.
Freshman Jalen Suggs would finish with 19 points, six rebounds and five assists after a quiet performance Monday night. Kispert followed up his output from Monday with 18 points on 7-12 shooting.
Despite the favorable matchup, the unusual schedule presented plenty of mental challenges for the Zags.
“We just have to be engaged the whole time,” Timme said. “It’s a great growth and learning experience and we just have to take this and move forward.”
Speaking of challenges, GU’s next opponent should prove to be quite formidable in the Virginia Cavaliers.
“They’re a great team,” Timme said of UVA. “They play a totally different style of ball, so we have to prepare and get after it these next couple days.”
The Zags (6-0) will take on the No. 16 Cavaliers Saturday, December 26th, in Fort Worth, Texas at 1 p.m. Fans can tune into the game on CBS.