Aaron Cook was a presence for Gonzaga in both halves of action, finishing with six points and six rebounds.

It was another one of those nights for the Gonzaga Bulldogs (22-0, 13-0 West Coast Conference) with a resounding 106-69 victory over the San Diego Toreros (3-8, 2-4 WCC) on Saturday night in Spokane. There was no first half drama this time around, however, as the Zags relied on old school bully-ball and suffocating defense throughout the night.

Same teams, different matchup

It seems the Zags took note of that slow start against the Toreros back in January before taking the floor tonight. Turnovers and missed shots kept the first matchup close throughout the first half in San Diego before GU gained an offensive rhythm and ran away with the game in the second half. Tonight’s matchup needed no such drama, as GU’s offense featured a much more balanced attack from the opening tip. In the previous matchup, the Zags had to rely heavily on Drew Timme due to a lack of ball movement on the perimeter, leading to unforced errors and bad shots. And while Timme had a large role tonight, he also shared the scoring load with the likes of Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert.

2 > 3…? 

While it’s no secret that the Zags don’t often emphasize outside shooting (they ranked 142nd in the country for three-point attempts heading into the night), it’s still a brilliant wonder as to how the best team in the country can go an entire half of scoring in the post and free throws. GU did not hit their first three-pointer until the 18:55 mark in the second half . At halftime, the Zags had attempted 13 free throws, racked up 40 points, yet could not hit the broad side of a barn with an 0-for-6 performance from three point land. 

“It’s kind of what we do,” Few said. “We have a high percentage of shots [in the paint] and we’re very efficient from there.”

It was definitely an old school approach with physical play around the rim, attacking the inferior Toreros defense from the inside. A similar strategy was employed during the second half of the first meeting by the Zags, which resulted in them pulling away handsomely. Tonight was merely a continuation, with GU’s guards relentlessly attacking the paint with the help of pick-and-rolls and shere athleticism. This late in the season, this type of performance doesn’t surprise Few.


Defense Bulldogs, Defense

This was the third straight game that the Bulldogs held their opponents to fewer than 30 points in the first half. Overall, the team’s collective defense has come a far way since the beginning of the year, and tonight was a prime example of that. GU forced the Toreros into 12 first half turnovers by playing the passing lanes and surrounding USD ball handlers immediately upon crossing half court. 

“We were able to knock some balls loose, and if nothing else we pressured them,” Few said. 

By night's end, the Bulldogs scored a whopping 33 points off turnovers. The lack of continuity and flow the Toreros enjoyed in the teams’ first meeting was non-existent in The Kennel with error after error. No space on the perimeter also limited outside success with just 25% shooting from deep for the night. Even with a slight let up in the second half, the Zags are putting together a sound unit on defense just in time for the postseason. 

Garbage time or glimpses of the future?

As the fate of the game was sealed and the starters took to the bench, Few unveiled what has potential to be the future lineup for his Bulldogs. A majority of the second half featured freshmen Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther with the likes of Anton Watson, Oumar Ballo and Ben Gregg, the high school senior turned college freshman. 

This lineup benefits from versatility on the wings with Strawther and Harris, two players who are not afraid to take an outside shot and can handle the ball with comfortability. In the open floor, both are hard to stop with their passing capabilities, as seen Saturday night with Strawther hitting Harris multiple times on the fast break, one of which resulted in a wide open three pointer.

In the guard spot, Aaron Cook brings a sense of veteranship to a rather young group. The transfer from Southern Illinois spends a majority of his minutes as the second guy off the bench, however, he fits in seamlessly as the primary ball handler in the second unit. A great defender, Cook also brings that toughness to the offensive end with thunderous dunks inside. 

Then there’s Watson, who has Brandon Clarke-esque tendencies that make him a valuable piece going forward. Length, size and versatility make the Spokane native a well-rounded player. Inside, Ballo and Gregg each have growing pains to endure, but overall the future is still bright for the Zags.

Cole Forsman is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @CGForsman.

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