The deck of an aircraft carrier is not your usual college basketball setting. But the USS Abraham Lincoln proved to be the proper setting for a hard-fought game where toughness was the key ingredient as the Gonzaga Bulldogs edged out the Michigan State Spartans 64-63.
Drew Timme played as the favorite to win the National Player of the Year award, especially in the second half, and was the main reason Gonzaga came away with a W. Timme led all players with 22 points and 13 rebounds, and led the Zags with 4 assists to go with 2 blocks. In tight games with difficult scoring conditions, you need your best players to stand out and make a difference. Timme was that difference in this one.
Gonzaga was lucky to see Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton return for another year with Timme, and they were both key cogs in the second half to boost the comeback. Strawther had 13 points and 9 rebounds, while Bolton scored their 7 points in the second half after playing just 5 minutes in the first half due to foul issues.
The Zags struggled to get out of their own way for much of the first half. They turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, had numerous header errors and settled for too many jumpers (and certainly didn’t do too many). Put it all together and you get a performance that doesn’t look much like Gonzaga.
The Spartans, to their credit, suppressed Gonzaga’s transition play and induced the Zags into those jumps by playing disciplined basketball and disrupting Gonzaga’s entry passes to the post. But a team of Gonzaga’s talent and aspirations has the tools and the know-how to counter what Michigan State was doing. You couldn’t tell from the first half performance, and it was telling that Mark Few and ESPN the announcer alluded to a lack of tenacity from the Zags in the first half.
Gonzaga started the second half looking much like he had finished the first, making bad choices leading to a growing deficit. Mark Few had to call a timeout just three minutes into the half after the Zags fell 12 points behind. Perhaps few took advantage of the break to introduce their players to each other as it looked like they had never met before the game. Whether it was intros or otherwise, the Zags played much better over the next five minutes, going on an 11-0 run fueled by who else but Timme.
After cutting the deficit to a single point, the Zags inexplicably fell in love with the outside shot which saw the next three possessions end in a missed three. Would you be surprised, dear reader, to learn that the Spartans capitalized on Gonzaga’s stubbornness and set up a 6-point buffer? Well, that’s exactly what they did.
Fortunately, for the Bulldogs, their defense was better than their second-half shooting. Although they saw Watson head to the bench early in the half with his 4th foul, the Zags were able to tighten the defense with a collective effort led by Hunter Sallis who was instrumental in locking down Joey Hauser.
Timme did the rest and put his teammates on his back. It’s the type of performance postseason awards voters remember when they fill out their ballots. It was also the type of team performance that sets the stage for a deep tournament in March. But Gonzaga will have to be better than they were on the USS Abraham Lincoln if they want this dream to come true.
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