Whether it was nerves or rust, who knows, the start of Gonzaga's highly anticipated Monday night game against San Diego State at the McCarthey Athletic Center was nothing pretty.
The GU student section showed up in full force, with hopes of avenging their 79-76 loss to the Aztecs at home in 2010. But it took the Zags five minutes and 38 seconds to see the ball go through the net. With two points from a goaltending call on a shot by senior Przemek Karnowski, they started 1-of-11 from the field. The seal finally came off the basket on a contested and-one hook shot from true freshman Zach Collins.
This basket sparked a 34-15 run by GU to finish out the half. A big block from Jonathan Williams, some clutch threes from Jordan Mathews, plus key hustle plays from Killian Tillie, and all the sudden the Zags had a 36-21 lead at halftime.
The second half was all Zags. They dominated on both ends of the floor, building off their first half momentum, and rode to a 69-48 victory over the Aztecs.
“[San Diego State] will probably win 25 or more games, and be a single digit seed,” head coach Mark Few said afterwards. “I think the win will end up serving us well. That’s why we scheduled them.”
A big reason for this second half surge was the play of Cal transfer Mathews. Mathews came out of the locker room firing. He hit three straight 3s to begin the half, and finished with five 3s on the night. Overall he was 6-10 from the field, and racked in a team high 17 points.
“I passed one up a couple seconds before, and Nigel [Williams-Goss] was like ‘No you’ve got to let it go’, so I said all right I’m going to let it go if I get another one. So I let that one go and my teammates just told me to keep shooting,” Mathews said. “Some of the guys were actually mad I didn’t shoot another one after that for a heat check.”
The Zags stayed in a zone the whole second half, and it worked out marvelously for them, holding the Aztecs to just 27 second-half points, many of which came in garbage time. They also forced a total of 13 steals and had eight blocks. The Aztecs were never able to get into any kind of offensive rhythm.
“I thought our defense was awesome," Few said. "Even in the first five minutes when we couldn’t score, we were playing good defense
"We were flying around, we were very anticipatory, we were helping each other, and we did a great job on the glass against an excellent offensive rebounding team.”
According to Few, the zone defense will be a matchup-to-matchup decision. But it is something that has proven to be very effective for them.
“We like how our zone’s been. We put it in about two weeks ago, and the way the guys have been playing it, we’ve noticed in practice that it has been way more active than it was in years past,” Few said. “We’ll see, but I think it’s going to be depending on the matchup.”
Another bright spot for the Zags was the play of their freshman, in particular Collins and Killian Tillie. Tillie showed just how valuable he can be for this deep team, bringing a huge spark of energy off the bench and making key hustle plays. He had a very well-rounded game with eight points, 10 rebounds, and three steals.
Collins was just as impressive; responding from a sub-par performance against Utah Valley on Friday with 15 points and eight rebounds tonight.
“I just wanted to come off the bench and give a spark to our team, not like I did Friday night. I had a rough game Friday, and I just kind of put that game behind me and tried to focus on the next one,” Collins said. “My teammates did a great job of supporting me these past few days, and I just felt really good coming out from the beginning.”
With the big win Monday, the Zags look to carry this momentum into their matchup with Bryant on Friday night.
“It’s always about us. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Mathews said. “As long as we do what we’re going to do and stick to the game plan, then we will be fine. We’ve just go to fight and battle every night.”