SEATTLE – Few teams in the country possess the kind of size necessary to adequately defend the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
North Dakota State, try as it did here at KeyArena in its opening-round game of the NCAA tournament, is not one of them.
Gonzaga knew this. And while the Bison countered gamely with the aggression of 6-foot-6 forward Dexter Werner – he was the primary contributor to a second-half spark that trimmed GU’s lead to single-digits in the second half – the Bulldogs still escaped with an 86-76 victory before a sellout crowd of 14,852.
Gonzaga was able to withstand Werner’s 22 points – 18 of them in the second half –thanks to the play of its towering frontcourt.
Kyle Wiltjer, the 6-foot-10 junior, scored 23 points. Przemek Karnowski, the 7-foot-1 junior, added 11 points, nine in the first half. Domantas Sabonis, another 6-foot-10 guy, scored seven points and snagged a team-best 11 rebounds. As a team, GU enjoyed a 35-24 rebounding advantage. And when the Bulldogs’ big guys weren’t plucking passes from the air and scoring easy baskets, they were leading GU’s parade to the free-throw line, where the Zags shot 19-of-28 and battered the Bison into inescapable foul trouble.
That was certainly by design.
“They’re not a deep team,” Wiltjer said. “They don’t really play a lot of guys off the bench. So coach (Mark Few) really emphasized our bigs just posting up hard, and we’re not going to get the ball every time, but if we post up hard, we’re going to pin fouls on them. And in the second half, we really got rewarded by being able to score some easy shots.”
So Gonzaga, the South region’s No. 2 seed, advances to a 4:10 p.m. Sunday game against No. 7 seed Iowa.
The Bulldogs (33-2) led 43-30 at halftime, and by as many as 18 points in the second half before the Bison trimmed that margin to nine points with 11:54 to play. Then to six points with 11:13 to play. Then to six again with a little more than six minutes left.
Leading scorer Lawrence Alexander got his 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting, though Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. made him work for each make. The Bison did most of their damage thanks to Werner, a 6-foot-6 sophomore forward whose physique does not inspire visions of dominance. But he mixed a deft turnaround jumper with a handful of successful power drives, and kept NDSU in the game despite checking in four-to-six inches shorter than the players defending him.
“Honestly,” said Werner, who averages eight points per game, “it was all just a little blurry to me.”
Not to Gonzaga.
“I would pick him up any day on a men’s league team,” Wiltjer cracked. “He’s going to be real good.”
It was a Werner gaffe, though, that created final separation. After Werner scored on consecutive possessions to cut GU’s lead to 68-62 with 6:05 to play, he fouled Zags guard Kevin Pangos during a 3-point attempt. Pangos, who finished with 18 points, made both the shot and the subsequent free throw, a crucial sequence that sparked an 11-2 run and put the game away for good.
Gonzaga shot 51.7 percent from the field, offsetting NDSU’s 53.7 percent clip by forcing 13 turnovers and shooting 16 more free throws.
“We knew this was going to be tough,” Few said. “But, again, these guys stepped up and made enough big plays down the stretch, especially on the offensive end, to hold off a really, really courageous and big-hearted opponent.”
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple