The biggest game in the McCarthey Athletic Center over the last year and a half turned into a blowout. A pair of airtight defensive stretches in the second half, culminating in a 22-2 run over a seven-minute span, guided the Zags to a 68-47 win last Thursday night in front of a raucous Kennel.
Saint Mary’s entered the game tied atop the West Coast Conference despite a rough nonconference performance. The Gaels, ready to bang down the door of the Top-25 with a road win against a premier program, were led by Brad Waldow, who boasted a 20-10 average when lining up against GU. The senior center, who was shooting nearly 60 percent on the season, was held to 14 points and seven rebounds while going 6-13 from the field.
Mark Few’s defensive game plan extended far beyond Waldow, as the entire Gael team had to work for open looks, often struggling to convert. SMC shot just 36 percent from the field, including a miserable 2-15 from beyond the arc.
Conference play has brought a defensive emergence for the Zags. The team’s offensive efficiency and versatility has been harped on throughout the season, yet GU has held six of nine WCC foes to 60 points or less. This opening half of conference games runs the total tally to 13 of 21 opponents being held under that mark. It is no coincidence that players frequently praise the coaching staff’s preparation, specifically on the defensive end.
Depth was promised to be a large asset entering the season. However, it is important to note the Zags rarely go more than eight deep. Angel Nunez, the ninth man, has seen more than four minutes in one game that was decided by less than 16 points.
Extreme value is found in the significant talent and ability of those few non-starters receiving significant minutes. Kyle Dranginis, Silas Melson and Domantas Sabonis, the first three off the bench, all spent valuable time on the court during GU’s massive second half run.
Here are the sets that received the most time in the rivalry game rout:
1. Kevin Pangos – Gary Bell Jr. – Byron Wesley – Kyle Wiltjer – Przemek Karnowski; 9:24; GU 12 SMC 8
Once again, the starters earned the bulk of their playing time in the opening minutes of each half. Saint Mary’s was content to shoot the three early in the game against these five and was able to get multiple open looks, yet went 0-4 from long-range against the set. Really nitpicking here, but a slight concern is notching only one assist on six field goals. However, two of the buckets came off offensive rebounds by Wiltjer and Karnowski.
2. Pangos – Bell Jr. – Wesley – Wiltjer – Domantas Sabonis; 7:07; GU 11 SMC 8
Few continued to stick to his plan, as Sabonis was first off the bench for the Zags, subbing for Karnowski three to five minutes into each half. The freshman phenom was a very intriguing defensive matchup with Waldow’s sneaky agility, though SMC utilized the senior’s size deep in the post. It is truly special that GU is able to throw in such unique defenders as Sabonis (great footspeed and length for a big man) and Karnowski (size and patience defending on the block).
3. Pangos – Silas Melson – Kyle Dranginis – combination of Wilter, Sabonis and Karnowski; 6:01; GU 11 SMC 4
Melson was on the court from 11:19 to 7:03 in the second half, and the Zags went on a 10-2 run during the span. The units with Melson and a mixture of the three big men held the Gaels to 2-7 shooting and forced a pair of turnovers, including one from Aaron Bright that led to a three from the freshman guard. Pangos, Melson and Dranginis give these sets a unique ability to handle the ball while the two off-guards add terrific length on the defensive end. Eric McClellan’s development can potentially contribute to additional depth with these qualities.
4. Pangos – Bell Jr. – Dranginis – Wiltjer – Sabonis; 4:06; GU 12 SMC 2
One stretch in the second half, from 7:03 to 2:57, was all these five needed to turn a solid victory into a significant statement win. Saint Mary’s went 0-4 from the field over the four minutes, while Pangos continued his takeover that spanned the entire 22-2 finishing blow. The senior point guard scored seven points and dished out four assists that led to an additional 10 points.
I don’t want to leave this game without discussing more of McClellan’s debut. The Vanderbilt-transfer played 4:45 and GU was outscored 9-7 during the stretch. It is vital to note that GU emptied the bench and was up by more than 20 in the final 2:57 of McClellan’s time. More importantly, the junior’s intense on and off ball-pressure while defending SMC point guard Evan Naar at the end of the first half was highly intriguing.
Few has made his tendencies known at this point in the season. The defensive performances are synchronizing with an incredible offense, while the lack of drop-off from starters to substitutes is combining to form a lethal weapon entering the second half of conference play.