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NCAA Tournament recap: 2 Gonzaga survives 15 North Dakota State 86-76

The Zags and Bison did battle at KeyArena in Seattle, just across the state from Gonzaga's campus in Spokane. The local fans had to sweat this one out despite the very clear differential in talent and athleticism between the two teams.

Gonzaga's senior backcourt duo of Gary Bell Jr. (left) and Kevin Pangos (right) celebrate during their NCAA Tournament round of 64 game against North Dakota State.
Gonzaga's senior backcourt duo of Gary Bell Jr. (left) and Kevin Pangos (right) celebrate during their NCAA Tournament round of 64 game against North Dakota State.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga is now 33-2 on the season which gives them a program record for victories. The two seeded Zags played like they have for the past month-plus, a strange combination of seemingly complete disinterest and exceptionally efficient and prolific offense.

That disinterest comes largely at the defensive end, where they gave up 1.08 points per possession tonight. North Dakota State came into tonight averaging just 1.02 points per possession, a mark that is barely above the national average despite coming against the generally abysmal defenses of the Summit League.

I don't know, it's March. Explanation enough.

The Bison started the game hot from deep, hitting their first three threes in less than two minutes. They held a 9-4 early lead. That quick start didn't last very long, as you might expect from a young 15 seed playing a veteran two seed. But the Zags didn't really pick up the pace either.

Gary Bell Jr., the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, drew the assignment of guarding Lawrence Alexander, the Summit League Player of the Year. Bell has a long history of shutting down the best perimeter player on the opposing team and in the first half he lived up to his billing. Alexander scored just six first half points, coming on two three pointers.

At the 12:15 mark Bell picked Alexander's pocket and took the ball down the court for a fastbreak slam. Moments later Alexander picked up his second foul, a charge drawn by reserve guard Eric McClellan, and made his way over to the bench.

Without Alexander on the floor the Bison couldn't find the bottom of the net. Gonzaga went on a mid-half 20-4 run to pull ahead by double digits.

Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis (11 rebounds), who are seven-foot-one and six-foot-11 respectively, owned the paint against the undersized front-court of the Bison. North Dakota State's best statistical category is keeping their opponents off the offensive glass, tonight they gave up 11 offensive rebounds.

Gonzaga had made a habit of following terrible first halves with blow-out level intensity in the second half. That was not the case tonight. The Zags played as if they were going to be handed the victory by standing on the floor for 40 minutes.

Alexander (19 points tonight) and Paul Miller had quiet first halves but opened the second half on a tear. The duo scored the Bison's first 18 points of the second half. The final three of those came from Paul Miller. His three with 11:55 to play turned what had been an 18 point game into a nine point, three possession contest.

The Zags bigs were absolutely dominant in the first half but in the second they simply could not stop the severely undersized Dexter Werner. The six-foot-six, 240 pound redshirt junior erupted in the middle of the second half. He scored 13 of his 22 points over the final 12 minutes of the second half.

For over five minutes down the stretch these two teams were separated by just single digits. The Zags kept scoring — they're really good at scoring — but couldn't do anything to stop the Bison from scoring on the other end.

Senior point guard Kevin Pangos, perhaps seeing his career flashing before his eyes, did what he does best to start putting the game away. He drilled a three with 5:45 to play and drew a foul on the otherwise infallible Dexter Werner. That four point play returned a double-digit lead to the Bulldogs.

Pangos scored 14 of the Zags' 19 points over the final 5:45 to seal the game.

Kyle Wiltjer scored a game high 23 points.

Somehow this Gonzaga team can play one of the least inspired games of their season and still put up 86 points. Gonzaga advances to face seven seed Iowa on Sunday at 4:10 p.m. Pacific.