No. 15 Memphis traveled to No. 18 Gonzaga in a rare and tasty Saturday night non-conference treat. The contest was full of intrigue and great match-ups. Both schools come from mid-level conferences and both are the dominant teams in those respective conferences.
Gonzaga had won nine straight games and sits alone atop the West Coast Conference. They boast an impressive non-conference schedule with victories over Oklahoma State, Washington State, Indiana, Maryland and two victories over Tennessee. Gonzaga lost to Arizona and took No. 1 UConn into overtime before succumbing 88-83.
Memphis entered the game on a 13-game winning streak and a mind-boggling 50 straight Conference USA wins. The Tigers have not fared as well as the Bulldogs in non-conference games.
Memphis has lost to Xavier, Syracuse and Georgetown, while getting wins against Cincinnati and Seton Hall. The Tigers, like Gonzaga, scored a victory against Tennessee earlier in the season.
Both teams came in looking for respect and a higher NCAA tourney seed. The game was played in the larger Spokane arena instead of “the Kennel,” Gonzaga’s smaller home court. This was the fifth game in the series with Memphis winning the past three match-ups.
The location did little to dampen the spirits of the students and Gonzaga fans. The arena had an air of electricity surrounding it, ESPN even had its College Gameday crew on hand. Too bad the game didn’t live up to its hype, as Gonzaga fans had little to celebrate.
As expected, the two heavyweights from mid-level conferences began to trade punches before Memphis opened a seven-point lead with 11:37 remaining in the first half, and Gonzaga’s point guard, Jeremy Pargo, sat on the bench with two early fouls.
Memphis began to stifle and confuse Gonzaga with their man-to-man pressure defense. Gonzaga committed seven turnovers in eight possessions as Memphis’s lead grew to 21-12 with 7:25 left in the half.
Memphis star Tyreke Evans was having his way getting to the rim, and Robert Dozier had already hit the double-figure mark with 10 points as the raucous crowd in Spokane grew cautiously quiet.
Gonzaga was slow to get back on transition defense, and Memphis took advantage of it with superior quickness. Austin Daye was even yelled at by Coach Mark Few to quicken his pace.
On the offensive side, Gonzaga was having trouble getting a rhythm and struggled to get an inside game going, forced to be a jump-shooting team by the Memphis pressure defense.
The Memphis lead grew to 17 points to close the half with a 40-23 lead in front of a very shocked and disappointed crowd in Spokane. Tyreke Evans had a great first half with 14 points and five rebounds.
Gonzaga couldn’t get to the rim, and Memphis was dominating on the boards 18-11. The lone bright spot for the Zags was Micah Downs, who had 10 points off the bench.
Gonzaga would have to find a way to get to the rim and break the Tigers' pressure if they stood any chance at a comeback.
They did perk up some to begin the second half but could do nothing to slow Tyreke Evans. Gonzaga did start to get in the lane more, but it didn’t help as Memphis extended its lead to 53-33.
The Memphis lead would grow to 24 before Gonzaga would make a competitive run. After a television timeout with seven minutes left, Zags coach Mark Few would sit three of his best players.
Jeremy Pargo, Austin Daye, and Matt Bouldin would all ride the pine during a 13-0 Bulldog run that cut the lead to 60-47 with just over three minutes to play.
Gonzaga began to play with confidence as Memphis grew cautious and tried to slow down the game.
It was too-little-too late as Gonzaga ran out of time and was forced to foul. Gonzaga had finally gotten tough and assertive and the crowd was back in the game, but it was all for naught as Memphis closed the game out 68-50.
Tyreke Evans showed he may be the best freshman in the country. He finished with 22 points and seven rebounds. Memphis has now gone 14-0 with Evans at point guard.
The Tigers have used four different players at the position this year, going 6-3 in that span before Evans took over.
The Memphis Tigers used their superior quickness and tenacity to dominate Gonzaga. Memphis would do it largely with their starting five with only seven points coming from its bench.
This was a statement game, and Memphis made a strong statement to the NCAA selection committee with a convincing win, while Gonzaga failed to impress and most likely earned itself a lower seed in the tournament.