Gonzaga men’s basketball defeated the Santa Clara Broncos 89-75 in the McCarthey Athletic Center Thursday night.
In the last week of the regular season, this was GU’s first time facing the Broncos after the previously scheduled matchups between the two teams were called off as Santa Clara faced COVID-19 restrictions.
The No. 1 Zags were coming off its 26th straight victory, dating back to last season, when the team beat the University of San Diego Torreros at home 106-89 Feb. 20. For Santa Clara, the team last bested Pepperdine at home 86-82 and hosted a 4-5 record in conference play before coming to the Kennel.
Santa Clara got into the scoring column immediately Thursday night, scoring six before GU senior Corey Kispert collected the first points for GU on a layup. The Broncos would get up to a 15-5 lead while GU struggled to land a bucket, shooting 2-11 from the field in the game’s first four minutes.
“We weren’t our usual self and Santa Clara deserves the credit for coming out with more spirit, more energy, more toughness and beating us to a lot of balls,” GU Head Coach Mark Few said. “I tell our guys all the time that this game needs to be played with passion, it needs to be played with enthusiasm, and that makes up for everything.”
In part thanks to five straight points from Kispert, who finished the night with a game-high 25 points, the Zags clawed their way back to tie the game at 19 with 11 minutes left in the first half. Aaron Cook went on to knock down one of two free throws on the next possession to give GU its first lead of the game.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing for GU from there, as both teams traded leads throughout the remainder of the first half. Santa Clara would go onto score five straight of their own, and GU responded with four consecutive scoring drives from Jalen Suggs, Anton Watson, Kispert and then Suggs again to make it 28-24 with seven minutes of first half action remaining.
Watson would claim his third personal foul only a few defensive possessions later however, and Few chose to sit Watson for Oumar Ballo. Santa Clara forward Guglielmo Caruso drained a go-ahead three in Ballo’s face immediately following the substitution, which transfer guard Andrew Nembhard responded with hitting a three of his own to reclaim the lead.
Ballo had a couple of rebounds and a put back score before Few brought him off the court for freshman Ben Gregg. Greg banked in a layup within a minute of hitting the hardwood, but committed a personal foul on the next possession and then missed a three while Santa Clara regained the lead 38-37.
“I went to Ben because he’s making plays and he has a good feel,” Few said. “We just have to get him a little more comfortable because he was a little more reticent of what he needs to do offensively, but I’ve certainly developed confidence in him and I think the guys now have developed confidence in him too; going forward, you’ll probably see more of him.”
As time was running down in the last minute of first half action with GU down a point, redshirt junior guard Joel Ayayi stepped up to hit his second three on the night and send the Zags back into the locker room ahead 40-38. Ayayi hit two of his six attempts from beyond the arc in the first half of play, and ended the night with 11 points and 9 rebounds.
GU finished ahead after the first 20 minutes of action, but trailed for almost 58% of the first half, struggling to swing the ball fluidly in transition or establish an imposing inside game as Santa Clara utilized its superior size to make the lives of Drew Timme and Watson rather difficult. Timme was relegated to two points on only two shot attempts in the first half, but he came out in the second half scoring GU’s first four points.
“I don’t think it’s something that we want to get used to at all, but we can’t let teams bog us down or exploit us,” Suggs said. “By getting out in transition for a lot of easy buckets, getting a lot of post touches to Drew where they didn’t have their help defense setup was huge for us.”
GU didn’t give up its lead at any point in the latter half of play, but the team still had difficulties making a solid run to pull away from Santa Clara. Cook converted his point after attempt on an and-one layup score which gave the Zags their first double digit lead of the game with 11:30 left to play.
Santa Clara would reel the score back to single from there, but Timme’s ability to create three straight and-one plays for himself while converting all three free throws allowed GU to reestablish itself with a 76-66 lead. Timme would go on to finish with 18 points, and his three consecutive and-ones were immediately followed by another one from Suggs, who ended his night with the only double-double for GU at 13 points and 11 boards.
Suggs was called for a technical after that play however, which got Santa Clara to the line and the ball back. What looked like what could’ve been a resurgent run for the Broncos in the final minutes was stifled by multiple solid defensive possessions for GU, and the Zags returned fire to take their largest lead of the game at 14 as the clock wound down.
“After they made that run and went up 13-2, that lit a fire under us, and from then on I think we made a lot of good plays,” Suggs said. “It hurt because we’d make two or three good plays and then we make a mistake like a turnover, bad pass or a wide open three on defense to let them stay in the game.
“I think we did a great job though, and this was good for us coming in to battle some adversity to let us know that anybody can beat us any night if we don’t come out here and play our game.”
After pulling away from Santa Clara en route to their 89-75 victory, the Zags look forward to its senior night game in the Kennel against Loyola Marymount at 7 p.m. local time, and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN.