Gonzaga basketball cruised to a 66-48 victory over Loyola Marymount on Saturday night to reach the WCC championship game in Las Vegas.
While the final score may reflect an easy victory, the halftime score did not. Gonzaga only led 26-25 at halftime after a slow start and poor shooting across the board.
From the opening tip, LMU appeared to be playing with a greater fire than the newly crowned No. 1 team in the nation. Behind the scoring of Anthony Ireland, who averaged over 20 points a game this season, LMU was able to stay neck and neck with the Bulldogs.
A Sam Dower buzzer-beater sent the Zags to the locker room with a slim lead at halftime, and it was not until Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. hit back-to-back three-pointers early in the second half that Gonzaga had any breathing room.
Gonzaga shot abysmally in the first half, and only slightly recovered in the second to end the game with a 43.5 percent shooting percentage from the field. Worse was the 67.7 percent the Zags shot from the free-throw line.
Kelly Olynyk, fresh off his nomination for Wooden Player of the Year, laid an egg in this game. He shot just 3-of-10 from the field and finished with only eight points. The only silver lining for the big man was the eight boards he pulled down.
The lone bright spots on the team last night were senior forward Elias Harris and sophomore point guard Kevin Pangos, who combined for 35 points—just over half of the Bulldogs' total.
In a game where all eyes were on them, Gonzaga stumbled to a victory, and it forces us to take a step back and ask a tough question: Should Gonzaga have its finger on the panic button?
The answer is yes and no.
To begin, Loyola Marymount has been playing with as much heart and hustle as any team in the country. After winning just one game in conference, LMU went on a three-game tear in the conference tournament. Max Good has this team motivated and excited to get their shot at the nation’s top-ranked team and had them believing they could pull of the upset.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, was coming off a weeklong break and had only just arrived in Las Vegas the day before the game. Where LMU had experience in the New Orleans Arena, Gonzaga had none.
Although Gonzaga played horrendously in the first half, it still took a lead into halftime. LMU was able to hang close, but there was never really a sense that it was going to overtake or pull away from Gonzaga.
As soon as Anthony Ireland began to miss shots, LMU fell away.
While Gonzaga’s offense was not firing on all cylinders, its defense was. Through a combination of great on-ball defense and full-court pressure, Gonzaga held LMU to under 50 points and forced 16 turnovers.
The Zags may be known for their explosive offense, but their defense has been improving steadily all season. Saturday’s win over LMU was demonstrative of what could happen in a tournament-type game. If Gonzaga is not shooting well, it can rely on its defense to keep it in the ball game.
Similarly, Gonzaga saw early foul trouble from starters Kelly Olynyk and Mike Hart and was forced to rely on its bench for quality minutes. Big men Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski made up for Olynyk’s physical and mental absence with a combined 11 points off the bench.
Again, it is good to know that should they face early foul trouble, the Zags can rely on their depth to keep them in a tough matchup. Beyond frontcourt depth, Gonzaga also received valuable minutes from backcourt players such as David Stockton and Drew Barham.
There was a lot of good that came from the early scare the Zags faced on Saturday night, and while nobody should hit the panic button, there is some cause for concern.
The Zags will not have much more time to prove themselves to the NCAA selection committee, and if they want to pass the eye test, they must do better against weaker competition. Conference tournament season is a chance to shine, and the Zags must do just that moving forward.
Finally, Gonzaga is running out of opportunities to be tested before March Madness.
The Zags will face St. Mary’s in the WCC championship on Monday, and that will be their last chance to face a quality opponent heading into the tournament. Gonzaga must not play down to the level of its competition as it did against LMU.
To put Gonzaga fans’ fears to rest, the Bulldogs must come out with the fire they have been known for all season.
With only rival St. Mary’s between Gonzaga and the WCC crown and a potential No. 1 seed, they should do just that.