In the first round of the NCAA March Madness tournament, Gonzaga men’s basketball outplayed Norfolk State University in a 98-55 victory Saturday evening. Both the 98 points scored by GU as well as the 43-point margin of victory were the largest in their respective categories for the 32 first-round games played Friday and Saturday.
NSU fought its way into the 16th spot in the West region after first claiming a conference title in the Mid-Eastern Conference, and then going on to win a tight 54-53 play-in game against Appalachian State on Thursday. GU entered the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the top dog in the West region after finishing the regular season flawless and besting West Coast Conference rival BYU in the conference title game a week and a half ago.
“I think that was the longest we ever waited to play an NCAA tournament game so honestly, from a coaching standpoint, that causes anxiety,” GU Head Coach Mark Few said. “But the guys came out with a great approach, playing great defense all night and did a good job.”
Saturday night’s first round matchup opened up with NSU getting ahead to an early 9-6 lead. GU guard Jalen Suggs committed two fouls in the first three minutes of action and NSU guard Keyshawn Hicks knocked down his first two 3-point attempts.
An and-one scoring drive from GU transfer guard Aaron Cook four and a half minutes into the game gave GU it’s first lead, and the Zags never looked back from there. Senior guard Corey Kispert got his 3-ball going early and had 15 first-half points on 5-7 shooting before going on to finish with a game high 23 points. He also moved into sole possession of third all-time in 3-pointers made at GU ahead of Matt Santangelo while going 6-9 from range.
“Corey is about the best leader you can have on your team, he does that every game bringing that energy and making sure that we have that same energy as well,” sophomore forward Anton Watson said. “We’re playing a 16 seed, but he knew that they were going to come out and fight early so he’s making sure that we’re already prepared.”
While NSU was able to contend with GU’s offensive pace for the first 10 minutes of the first half, the implementation of a full-court press and trap defense by GU stifled the Spartans’ ability to even get shots up as time pressed on. NSU ended the opening period shooting 9-28 from the field while GU was shooting above 55% as a team. Besides Kispert’s performance early on, a lot of the spark for GU came off it’s bench, which was responsible for 40 of the Zags points in the game.
After Suggs came out from those two early fouls, GU only committed two more in the first half and NSU struggled to find it’s rhythm at the line, shooting 2-7 at the charity stripe in the first frame. It was also due to GU’s early defensive dominance down low - particularly from Watson - that NSU failed to get any of its rhythm back that the Spartans had early on.
Watson swung his defensive edge into an offensive advantage, getting good looks both inside the paint and from range by manipulating NSU’s zone defense. Watson finished with a career-high 17 points on a perfect 7-7 FG and 2-2 FT shooting performance.
“In the zone, my favorite spot to play is honestly in the middle because you have control of the whole game at that point,” Watson said. “[NSU] played zone a lot and I knew they were about to do that so I was looking for it and really aggressive with my shot the whole time.”
An additional 3 from Kispert capped off a 15-2 GU run and gave the Zags their largest lead of the half at 22 points before rounding out the first 20 minutes on top 43-23.
NSU forward JJ Matthews, who led the Spartans with 24 points in its previous victory over Appalachian State, tried to get NSU back in the game with a 3-pointer early in the second. However, GU’s ability to maintain control of the boards - securing 30 total and eight offensive to NSU’s 14 and two offensive by the time there was 15 minutes left - gave GU’s offense ample time to find its groove.
GU guard Joel Ayayi got up to a quiet 15 points on 50% shooting, and Suggs - who finished the first half with two points to his name while committing three fouls - got up to speed after back-to-back scoring drives including finishing an alley-oop dunk off an Ayayi steal and feed.
“I really thought today was about our defense, and our defense getting out to lead to our offensive as we got out in transition,” Few said. “I hope that we continue to play that hard, pay close enough attention to the scouting reports of it and take great care of the ball.”
Suggs' dunk gave GU a 37-point lead off a 21-3 run. During the NSU timeout that followed, Few began to sub out some of his starters with nine minutes left.
That lead expanded to a height of 49 points with 5:51 left to play as freshman Julian Strawther went 3-4 from beyond the arc in his first taste of tournament action after being subbed in halfway through the second half.
A handful of 3s out of NSU, including a four-point play, brought its team field goal percentage up to 29.8% on the half after really struggling to find any shooting consistency during the middle portion of the game.
The contest ended with GU freshman Ben Gregg also getting his first peak at tournament action in the final four minutes, while the Zags rode out their strong first round performance. GU will play the No. 8 seed Oklahoma at 11:40 a.m. PST Monday in the second round of the tournament.