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After final exams, another hoops test for GU

| December 10, 2019 12:18 AM

LAST WEEK

So now we’ve seen huge, talented Washington.

They’re as long as advertised, and blessed with plenty of hoops gifts — but they still can’t beat the Zags.

Gonzaga wrapped up an unusual week on Sunday by holding off the No. 22 Huskies 83-76 despite the din of a sellout crowd at Alaska Airlines Arena.

The Zags’ warm-up to that nationally televised, in-state rumble came on Wednesday night with a 101-62 pounding of Texas Southern at The Kennel.

Texas Southern was simply batting practice ahead of the trip to Seattle, where the Huskies — with seven players listed at 6-foot-9 or above — were determined to flip a rivalry that has seen Gonzaga go unbeaten since 2005.

A couple of things jumped out quickly during this furious, loosely-officiated matchup.

First, the Huskies’ super freshmen, Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, are as spectacular as we’ve heard — although the high-flying McDaniels tends to play a little out of control at times (five turnovers).

Stewart, meantime, is the real deal.

He’s not a spectacular leaper like McDaniels, but at 250 pounds he’s totally unmovable around the bucket.

Stewart has a soft touch, too, which he proved by getting a nice shooter’s roll while hitting 6 of 7 from the floor and 9 of 10 from the foul line — not to mention adding 10 rebounds to his 21 points.

What McDaniels, Stewart and the rest of the Huskies couldn’t do, however, was ever get a run going that Gonzaga couldn’t answer.

The Zags’ were again playing shorthanded, with senior guard Admon Gilder limited to 10 minutes on a gimpy knee — although frosh Anton Watson managed eight minutes.

Watson, who is still nursing a bum ankle, couldn’t do too much — but he had a couple of assists and drew a charging foul on his old prep foe McDaniels.

However much Gilder and Watson were hurting, they managed to provide a few minutes to give the starters just a bit of a rest — and they needed it as everyone else went at least 32 minutes, and point guard Ryan Woolridge logged a massive 39 without seeming to look tired.

Watson’s time on the floor allowed Killian Tillie to take a couple of breaks and play 34 minutes, proving that his knee issues might be receding.

All those minutes turned out to be critical for a couple of reasons.

Tillie canned a long, long range 3-ball at the end of the shot clock to restore the Zags’ seven-point lead with less than three minutes to play.

“It felt good,” Tillie said when asked about the distance (29 feet). “It was cash.”

Then Joel Ayayi, who has been starting in place of Gilder, knocked down a cold-blooded 3-point dagger in the final minute to finish UW’s final rally — just one possession after he’d missed a long one.

The irony is that Gonzaga was just 6 for 21 from deep, and yet the two kill shots down the stretch were long balls.

MEANWHILE, about Washington’s size and skill ...

Maybe it’s the fact that they stay mostly in a 2-3 zone — mixing it up from time to time — but Gonzaga not only won the rebound battle 36-30, the Zags grabbed a whopping 11 offensive boards to just a pair for Washington.

The Zags’ tenacity on the offensive glass led to some big buckets and kept some possessions alive with the game very much at stake.

That board work, even if slightly unexpected, made a big difference because the Huskies outshot Gonzaga 51 percent to 48, and hit nine 3-pointers on 21 tries for nearly 40 percent success.

The Zags did manage to shake their recent free-throw woes, however, and knocked down 11 of 14.

One thing we learned from the trip to Seattle is that after watching Gonzaga zip the ball around and shift positions against that massive Husky zone, it will take an awfully effective zone defense to bother the Zags.

Woolridge kept the ball moving, and sometimes exchanged spots with Tillie — allowing the 6-10 Frenchman, who’s a great passer anyway, to see over the zone and find people drifting into open spots.

“I thought we moved the ball well, and the guys got themselves into good positions,” Coach Mark Few said. “That’s a big zone, so you can’t stand around, or just throw the ball on the perimeter.

“We did a good job finding open space against them, and getting the ball there.”

The Zags (10-1) are now ranked anywhere from No. 6 through No. 8, depending your poll of choice, and the win over UW gives them bragging rights in the Northwest, since they’ve also beaten a ranked Oregon team.

As for the Texas Southern game, there’s not much to say — except maybe the Zags shoot free throws better when it matters.

In the blowout of Texas Southern, they were a dismal 9 of 16 (and that’s with Ayayi and Corey Kispert combining to make all four).

But just as they did against Oregon (16 of 20), the Zags converted when it mattered to frustrate Washington.

Considering that the Zags won against a good team in a hostile environment with the starters having to play monstrous minutes, it will be interesting to see how this team looks when everyone is healthy.

THIS WEEK

It’s finals week for Gonzaga University students, so the Zags play just once this week ... but it will be another test.

A stern test, indeed.

They face No. 15 Arizona in Tucson on Saturday night.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Tillie said. “It’s going to be great.

“The only way we can improve, and show that we’re a good team, is go play the big guys.”

The Wildcats are 9-1, but took a slight dip in the polls after losing on the road to Baylor last week.

One interesting note that Zags fans might want to keep for the future is that Arizona needed every bucket to defeat Pepperdine 93-91 — so all those predictions that the Waves could be a factor in the WCC race may have a real ring of truth.

The Cats have a terrific freshman class — although recruited under something of a cloud during an FBI investigation that still might lead to NCAA sanctions.

The star of the show is Nico Mannion, who is expected to be a one-and-done NBA prospect. There are mock drafts that list Mannion as a lottery pick.

The 6-3 Mannion is a redheaded kid who looks like an Alabama farm boy — but in fact his given name is Niccolo and he’s from Siena, Italy.

Gonzaga is well-known for landing international players, but this week they’ll face the challenge of slowing one down.

Mannion has struggled with his shot in the Wildcats’ past two games — the loss to Baylor and a five-point victory over Wake Forest — but those were outliers, and scoring is only part of his skill set.

It would be a mistake to assume the Cats will have trouble finding the hoop, since Mannion and fellow guard Josh Green are hitting 3-pointers at the rate of 40.5 and 43 percent, respectively.

Mannion is averaging 15.3 points per game overall, but he’s also bagging around six assists.

Mannion is hardly a one-man show, however.

Arizona has had a wave of talent year after year, and this time around is no different.

Forward Zeke Nnaji is averaging 16.6 points on 72 percent shooting, and is the leading rebounder at 6.7.

The Zags got a good workout in preparation for Nnaji during their tussles with UW’s Stewart.

Nnaji is a similar player and roughly the same size (6-11 and 240 in Nnaji’s case).

“We’re fortunate to have a week to get healthier and prepare for Arizona,” Few said. “They’re always terrific in that building, and they have that usual Arizona talent.

“This has become a great rivalry for us the last few years, and it’s good for basketball in the West.”

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns for The Press appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Steve also contributes the “Zags Tracker” package on Gonzaga basketball each Tuesday.

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