After dispatching North Dakota State 102-60 in a glorified scrimmage at The Kennel to reach 7-0, the Zags got the difficult test they expected in a nationally televised Saturday shootout at Creighton.
The Bluejays had already won the Cayman Islands Classic by defeating No. 16 Clemson, and got the entire Omaha region pumped up for a shot at the No. 1 team in the nation.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott met students with doughnuts and assorted other treats on the morning of the game, and the atmosphere was electric as just short of 19,000 set up a howl long before tip-off at CHI Health Center Arena.
And right on cue, the Jays came out firing and scoring.
Led by dynamic soph guard Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton hit seven of its first 10 tries from deep, and ran out to a 13-point lead.
The Zags hung within 48-41 at halftime, despite foul trouble for Josh Perkins and Rui Hachimura, then let Zach Norvell Jr. — now known as Microwave — get hot to keep the game close early in the second half.
Ultimately, Creighton was bound to miss some 3-balls, and the Jays had no answer for Rui or Brandon Clarke near the hoop.
Both of Gonzaga’s bigs wound up with double-doubles and they began to wear down Creighton.
The game was decided in one blistering stretch with Creighton up 73-72. The Zags forced three turnovers and several missed shots, while Perkins and Norvell again struck from deep during a 12-0 run.
Norvell wound up with a career-high 28 points, although he misfired on four straight 3s late in the game, earning a discussion from Coach Mark Few during a timeout.
Creighton never seriously threatened again after Gonzaga’s big run, and the Zags passed their first true test in a hostile environment with a 103-92 victory.
The Zags are in the middle of their toughest stretch of the season, with a talented Washington gang visiting Spokane on Wednesday night.
That’s followed by a trip to Phoenix for a neutral site battle against No. 6 Tennessee on Sunday.
Tip-off Wednesday is 8 p.m. with the game on ESPN2, with the Tennessee battle on ESPN at noon.
This four-game gauntlet, which started at Creighton and finishes with a game at North Carolina, will truly test the shorthanded Zags.
With Killian Tillie still out and backup point guard Geno Crandall sidelined for about a month with a broken hand, Few has a very short bench.
Freshman Filip Petrusev and utility man Jeremy Jones are pretty much the only subs Few feels he can use, so the games coming up should be the Zags’ most difficult assignments until the NCAA tournament.
Washington comes to the The Kennel with a 6-2 record, and Tennessee is 6-1 — with the Vols’ only loss coming in overtime to No. 2 Kansas.
How the Zags handle whistles on both ends of the floor could go a long way to determining which way results fall in tougher games.
Especially with Tillie and Crandall out, Gonzaga simply can’t get into serious foul trouble against good teams.
They walked the tightrope at Creighton, as Hachimura played only 11 minutes in the first half while the Jays were building a lead.
Perkins also picked up two quick fouls, but Few trusted his senior leader to stay on the floor — since it’s anybody’s guess who could play the point for any meaningful minutes.
Greg Foster Jr.?
Few believes fans may not realize how much Crandall has added since he arrived as a transfer from North Dakota.
“He gives us a different kind of energy, an all-out mentality,” Few said. “It’s noticeable in practice. Even though he got thrown right in with no preparation after a lot of classes (to complete a degree), our intensity picked up as soon as he joined the group.”
Unfortunately, Crandall’s boost will be gone for a while, which means Perkins could be asked to play the full 40 minutes against some good teams.
Clearly, he and the other starters need to stay on the floor.
Losing Hachimura or Clarke — who has fought foul trouble in big games already — for long stretches could doom the Zags until Tillie returns.
Bottom line: Since they can outscore most teams anyway, Few’s stars have got to avoid silly fouls.
There will be a loss or two coming if they don’t.
Meanwhile, we mentioned the other end of the floor ...
Former Oklahoma and TCU coach Billy Tubbs once said, “Two things never survive: dogs that chase cars and teams that can’t shoot free throws.”
Gonzaga fans must be aware of that already, having endured plenty of blood pressure issues as Hachimura and Clarke each missed a pair of free throws in the final minute against Duke — turning what could have been a routine finish into a thriller.
When Creighton fell behind late, they went right after Clarke, who came into the game shooting just 48 percent from the stripe.
That’s odd, too, because the transfer from San Jose State has a very nice stroke. He’s hit both his 3-point tries and his mid-range jumper is sweet.
The guy should be a good free-throw shooter.
Fortunately, he looked the part against Creighton, hitting six straight in the final two minutes.
The rest of the group seems solid, although Hachimura (67 percent) works so hard around the basket that sometimes he looks exhausted while shooting free throws.
If I were coaching an opponent, I’d ignore these early numbers and foul Hachimura instead of Clarke.
So far, no issues anywhere else.
Perkins is sitting at 90 percent (no big surprise), Norvell at 80, Petrusev 81 percent (22 of 27), Jones 75 percent, and Kispert has made all five of his tries so far.
Of course, there’s a difference between canning freebies against North Dakota State and doing it in the final minutes against Duke, Tennessee or Carolina.
The goal is obvious ...
Don’t commit unnecessary fouls, because there isn’t much help available.
And when you get to shoot free throws (and they surely will, especially Rui and Clarke) those points have to count.
Pretty simple, really.
• • •
Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org