In game that was billed as a match-up of depth, Gonzaga rode what was basically a six-man rotation to an 87-82 win over West Virginia in a battle of ranked teams in the Jimmy V Classic in Indianapolis on Wednesday evening.
The Zags (3-0) put four players in double figures, led by Joel Ayayi’s 21, to fend off a determined Mountaineer effort. Corey Kispert and Andrew Nembhard had 19 apiece, while Drew Timme added 17.
West Virginia (3-1) countered by putting 11 players on the floor, with eight playing 11 minutes or more. Much of that was forced by foul trouble on the front line, where Oscar Tshiebwe and Gabe Osabuohien earned DQs with five whistles, while Derek Culver had four. Timme fouled out with less than a minute to go for the Zags, while Anton Watson also earned a seat on the bench with five fouls in 23 minutes.
Gonzaga was able to take advantage of some of the Mountaineer backups on the offensive end, especially in the second half. In the opening 20 minutes, the Bulldogs shot just 37% (13-35), but ran their offense and got to the rim much more easily in the second. The Zags were 21-34 (61%) over the final 20 minutes.
The only place Gonzaga shot it poorly was from long range, where it was 4-16. The Bulldogs countered by racking up 22 assists on their 34 made field goals, and scoring 60 of their 87 points in the lane. That total was augmented by a 25-4 advantage in transition scoring.
“We didn’t guard the ball screen,” Huggins analyzed. “We have spent an enormous amount of time guarding the ball screen and we are going to have to do it a different way. We told our bigs to take the left hand, our guards take the right hand, and we didn’t do it. We tried to hard hedge, we didn’t do that. Our guards continued to get screened and stand there. Our big guys got beaten to the spot. They scored 60 points in the paint, and their perimeter guys scored a ton of them.”
“Our coaches prepared us for that, but we just came up short,” said Culver, who had a massive effort in defeat with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
“We knew they were a transition team but we didn’t get back on defense. We have to guard consistently,” WWU guard Deuce McBride added.
West Virginia got off to a solid start early, but could have built a bigger lead than the 12-6 advantage it forged. The Mountaineers played good defense and the Zags missed their first four shots, helping WVU to the early advantage with five minutes gone.
That didn’t last long, though, especially when West Virginia went to its bench. Sean McNeil, 0-4 in the early going, including three misses from 3-point range, was knocked out of the game by an elbow from Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert. McNeil was called for a block on the play, and Kispert’s resulting 3-point play gave the their first lead of the game at 18-17. That was part of a 9-0 Zags run that ended with an Andrew Nembhard lay-up, resulting in a 20-17 Gonzaga advantage.
That opening pattern was repeated over the next few minutes, with WVU retaking the lead and pushing its advantage to 33-24 and 35-26, only to see the Zags cut it back down to three with less than a minute to play. A McBride bucket then gave the Mountaineers a 39-34 lead at the break. Tshiebwe and McBride each had 10 points in the opening half, with the former adding eight rebounds. Derek Culver added seven points and nine rebounds.
McNeil’s absence was offset by an injury to Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs, who had four points and four rebounds in the first ten minutes. Suggs suffered an ankle injury on a non-contact play with 7:07 to go in the first half, but then returned with 15:53 to play.
While Gonzaga found its rhythm, WVU continued to battle. Taz Sherman had three field goals that stopped mini-Zag runs, and the Mountaineers trailed by just two points with five minutes to play. From there, though, the Zags went on a 13-6 run to put the game away.
“We’re every bit as good as they are if we don’t do dumb things,” Huggins concluded. “We have to cut out the dumb things. We had every opportunity to come out of here with a win, and we kind of threw it away. We missed free throws, missed layups, and turned the ball over without being pressured. We’ve got a lot of things to fix. We made some careless errors that came back to bite us.”
Tshiebwe had 14 points and nine rebounds in just 21 minutes of action. McBride added 10 points, but made only four of his 14 shots from the field. Taz Sherman and Osabuohien chipped in 12 and 10 respectively, but it wasn’t quite enough to offset Gonzaga’s second-half efficiency.
West Virginia continues its road swing to start the season with a Sunday trip to Washington, D.C. to face former Big East foe Georgetown. The game, part of the Big East/Big 12 Battle series, is scheduled for a 4:30 PM ET tip at the Hoyas’ McDonough Arena. No fans are allowed for the game, which will be broadcast on FS1.
The Hoyas are 1-1 on the season with a win over UMBC and a loss to Navy. The game against WVU is the third of a season-opening six-game homestand.
WVU continued to struggle from the field, making just 38% of their attempts. Conversely, it was good from thre free throw line, going 27-33. However, five misses down the stretch squelched a comeback attempt.
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Osabuohien made the first 3-pointer of his West Virginia career. He missed four attempts in 2019-20, and this was his first attempt of 2020-21. He was 6-34 in his two seasons at Arkansas.
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True freshman Isaiah Cottrell showed the first flashes of the ability that made him a highly-regarded recruit. He hit a pair of shots, dished out an assist after making a good decision on a drive, and made two of his three free throw attempts while filling in for the foul-plagued Mountaineer front line.
“I saw a lot of resilience from Isaiah,” said Culver of his teammate. “He’s younger, but he showed a lot of toughness today, getting thrown in against the number one team in the country.”
“I thought Isaiah played well. He made a couple of mistakes defensively, but we need to spend some more time with him and get him in because he is a skilled guy,” Huggins added.