The Zags are heading back to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in school history and first time in six years. Offense, exceptional offense, pushed Gonzaga past a stout defense in the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Over the next week expect to see Adam Morrison pop up in the discussion about Gonzaga's upcoming Sweet 16 game. Their foe, UCLA, memorably came back against the Morrison led Zags in the 2006 Sweet 16 which proved to be Morrison's final collegiate game. At the end of the game he fell to the floor in tears.
While that's likely the defining story line heading into the match-up, it's far from the most appropriate. Gonzaga defeated UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, 87-74, on December 13, 2014. No other team has taken down the Bruins on their home floor this season.
Sluggish, uninspired starts had become the norm for the Zags over the past two months but tonight, with the win-or-go-home nature of the NCAA Tournament evident, the Zags came out firing. Kyle Wiltjer hit a three on the Zags' first possession. He didn't miss until his tenth field goal of the game, with nine minutes left in the second half, and finished with a game high 24 points.
Gary Bell Jr. played very aggressively for the Zags early. The WCC defensive player of the year even found himself matched up with Hawkeyes center Adam Woodbury. There is an 11 inch height difference between those two.
Wiltjer, who put on an offensive clinic, continued to be less than exceptional on the defensive end. He picked up two first half fouls and went to the bench at the 12:49 mark. Without him on the floor the Zags' offense became a bit more sluggish, though it wasn't enough to allow the Hawkeyes to mount a serious comeback.
That's partially because Gonzaga shut down Iowa, particularly Aaron White, in the first half. Coming off a 26 point outburst in the Hawkeyes' win over Davidson White was held to just six first half points. The Hawkeyes scored just 0.879 points per possession in the first half, far below their season average of 1.05.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga finished the half scoring 1.394 points per possession and had an effective field goal percentage of 74.1%. That number is crazy on it's own but put it in context and it becomes absurd. Iowa came into today with the nation's 25th best effective field goal percentage defense, holding teams to just 44.9%.
Gonzaga all but won the game in the first half but Iowa wasn't going to go away. The Hawkeyes opened with an 8-2 run out of the break and caused three Zags turnovers.
Aaron White shook off his first half struggled and finished the game with 19 points. His teammate Jarrod Uthoff had the team high with 20 points, 14 of which came in the second half. Those two, along with Mike Gesell, fueled an early second half comeback that saw Iowa pull repeatedly within 11 points. Gonzaga held a 17 point advantage at halftime.
Kyle Wiltjer committed his third foul of the night, and his second dumb one, five minutes into the half when he accidentally palmed the face of a Hawkeye on the perimeter, late in the shot clock. He came out of the game and the Zags' offense reverted, temporarily, into passive mode.
Kyle Dranginis has been coming off the bench and providing a major spark for this occasionally listless looking team, and he played that role once again tonight. His box score isn't that impressive, just three points and two rebounds in 20 minutes. But, he dished out four assists and for a long stretch during the middle of the second appeared to be the only Zag looking to get the ball into the paint.
Gonzaga went on a 9-0 run starting with just under 10 minutes to play. That run was capped by a Kevin Pangos three pointer which stretched the lead to 20 points.
Over the final six minutes Gonzaga would push their lead to as much as 22 points.
In the end the Zags finished with a dominating 87-68 victory over a strong defensive team that had just demolished Davidson in the round of 64. Their high powered offense now gets a UCLA team which dropped 92 points on UAB in their round of 32 game.