Anton USF

GU junior forward Anton Watson finished Thursday's 78-62 win over USF with seven points, four rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. 

Chet Holmgren dazzles, Andrew Nembhard and Drew Timme find their footing in the second half.

Amid one of the most frustrating halves for the Bulldogs this season, it was 19-year-old Chet Holmgren who propelled the Zags as Andrew Nembhard and Drew Timme had comparatively lackluster performances in the first half.

Holmgren led the Zags with 12 points at the break. GU Head Coach Mark Few seemed reluctant to set up specific offensive sets for the 7-foot-1 center, instead opting for Holmgren to find his own shots within the flow of the offense. On limited touches, Holmgren splashed two 3-pointers in the first half while impacting countless drives by USF guards Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz.

“It's hard sometimes to direct the ball to him, but I was proud of how he had to fight in there,” said Few. “He dug out a lot of big-time rebounds and did a great job rim protecting. He delivered a lot.”

The same couldn’t be said about the rest of the Bulldogs. Despite a concerted effort to establish Timme on the block, he couldn’t get comfortable as USF’s Yauhen Massalski gave Timme his most difficult matchup since Duke’s Mark Williams stifled the mustachioed forward in November.

“It honestly wasn't fun. Those are shots I usually make and they just didn't go in tonight. Honestly, the team handled it well,” said Timme. “They just kept cheering me on and being by my side. It’s not easy going through something like that but when people have your back it makes you feel good.”

Timme was limited to five points on 1-8 shooting while Nembhard lost command of the offense he so regularly steers with only two assists.

Luckily for Few and Co., elite talent can only be stifled, but never fully contained.

In the second half, Nembhard’s steady hand guided the GU offense back on track.  Off an out of bounds play, Nembhard lofted a touch pass from the corner into the soft hands of Holmgren for a smooth two-handed slam that quelled the concerns of all those in attendance.

The Florida transfer finished with 10 points, seven assists and three pivotal steals.

Timme clawed his way back to prominence as well, finishing with 23 points on 9-20 shooting as he cleaned up his stat line in garbage time.

Holmgren was the ever-present diamond in the rough, though, particularly on a night where USF sought out physicality and a slow pace of play.

The 7’1 “center” pump-faked from the corner and took two dribbles before hanging in the air and converting an and-one layup to send The Kennel into a frenzy in the second half.

The unicorn continued to play with abnormal grace for a player his size, blocking jump shots on defense and catching lobs on offense, all while keeping the Dons honest by sprinkling in some mid-range buckets amidst his flurry of 3-pointers.

Holmgren received a flurry of applause for his magical performance, checking out with the game in hand as the Zags won their 25th straight game in WCC play.

Hickman and Sallis put their elite talent on display

Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis knew they wouldn’t be receiving the lion’s share of backcourt minutes with Nembhard returning and Rasir Bolton transferring to GU. Instead, the freshman duo has made the most of their intermittent opportunities.

It’s no secret that the tandem possesses elite athleticism and scoring ability. On what is arguably the most talented roster in GU history, their scoring isn’t what Chef Few ordered.

Hickman delivered, playing with his hair on fire in the first half. The freshman pressured the Dons every time the ball landed in his hands as he was a constant threat to slice into the lane.

His hustle was no less effective as he jumped a passing lane at the top of the key and dove after the ball to no avail as USF retained possession.

“I think both [Hickman] and [Sallis] are starting to understand the type of intensity you have to bring to function at a high level,” Few said.

In Sallis's 10 minutes of action, he took on the toughest defensive matchup on the floor in Jamaree Bouyea. The 6th year senior finished with 25 points on 9-20 shooting and played every minute of the game.

As USF coach Todd Golden kept glancing down his thin bench, Few continuously threw fresh bodies at the depleted Dons.

Hickman scored his only points of the game on a hard right to left cross to get to the tin in transition and put the Zags up 56-40.

“San Francisco runs some pretty intricate stuff on the offensive end and I thought that for the first time seeing it, the freshman handled it really, really well,” Few said. “Nolan came in and gave us great, great minutes. Both he and Hunter are growing up right before our eyes.”

Dons provide the blueprint?

Baby-faced USF coach Tommy Golden fell to 0-6 against the Zags in his career. Despite his lack of success against GU, Golden always prepares a game plan that gives his squad a chance to win in a hostile environment.

Earlier this week, Golden told College Hoops Today that, “We have to make [Gonzaga] execute in the half court. We can’t try and trade baskets."

The Dons executed their coach’s plan nearly flawlessly in the first half, trailing by only three at the break. The only other games the Zags faced such a close margin or (gasp) a deficit was against Duke and Alabama.

Most notable was the play of standout guard Jamaree Bouyea. The slender guard finished with a well-earned 25 points on 9-20 shooting and tormented Zags defenders all night long. Bouyea exposed the fact that among all the talent on the roster, the Bulldogs lack an elite wing defender that can check a crafty guard.

Much like GU tries to mix up their defensive coverage from man to a 1-2-2 half-court press, the Dons switched from man to a 3-2 zone periodically throughout the game.

In the first half, the zone took the little rhythm the Zags possessed and slowed them down to a halt. The No. 1 team in offensive efficiency (according to KenPom) looked unsure of where to go with the ball and even more uncertain of what to do once they go there.

The Zags adjusted in the second half, positioning Holmgren in the soft center of the zone and letting the offense play from there. In addition to his new task of slowing down Bouyea, Strawther found a soft spot along the baseline for an uncontested dunk.

Most obvious was the Dons ability to play within themselves in the half court. The Zags were without a fast break opportunity for the first seven minutes of the game before Nembhard seized an open lane for an and-one in transition.

More faulty than the Dons’ game plan was their lack of depth. Outside of Bouyea and 5’9 guard Khalil Shabazz, USF lacked shot creators.

The Dons live and die by the three on most nights. They made only 6 of 21 from the 3-point stripe against GU, a similar figure to close losses suffered against BYU and Loyola Chicago.

Ultimately, the Dons ran out of steam in the second half as their defense parted like the red sea and the Zags dunked left, right and center as they won running away.

The good news for every other college basketball program in America? The blueprint to beat the Zags may be a methodical half court offense, elite offensive guards and shutting down the GU fastbreak.

Easier said than done.

Tommy Conmy is a copy editor.