For a half, it looked like there might be a new No. 1 in the nation.
No. 1 Gonzaga weathered Creighton’s hot-shooting first half and countered with Zach Norvell’s 23 second-half points in a 103-92 win. Four of the five Zags starters scored in double-figures — three of whom finished with double-doubles — showing the nation that the Bulldogs are No. 1 for a reason.
Here are three takeaways from Gonzaga’s first road win:
Josh Perkins will be the most important Bulldog this season
Zach Norvell will steal headlines for today’s huge second half performance, and Rui Hachimura will gain the most recognition from opposing teams, postseason awards and NBA scouts when all is said and done.
But as cliche as it sounds, fifth-year senior point guard Josh Perkins will be the key for Gonzaga.
Hampered with two early fouls, Mark Few had to turn to his bench in order to preserve Perkins. Both sides of the floor struggled in his absence: Gonzaga’s offense became stagnant and Creighton guards Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitch Ballock and Davion Mintz had their way on offense.
Yet when Few inserted Perkins back in the lineup with 8:13 to go, Gonzaga looked like a different team. On his first offensive possession, Perkins hit a floater in the lane, then picked Mintz’s pocket on the other end. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the Bluejays went on a two-minute stretch without a field goal once Perkins stepped back on the floor.
What’s up with Gonzaga’s defense?
Maybe the thought of having a short bench held them back, or perhaps Creighton’s Ty-Shon Alexander and Damien Jefferson simply outmatched the Zags that afternoon. Regardless, Gonzaga showed an unwonted lack of effort on defense.
At first, Gonzaga’s three-point defense was an issue. Creighton started 6-9 from three, then finished the half with seven different players making threes. Having a thinner backcourt didn’t help matters — having Crandall come off the bench instead of Greg Foster would’ve been valuable Saturday, but nevertheless — yet the lack of defensive effort couldn’t be pinned on just the guards. As a team, Gonzaga was lethargic on defense. Their switches were late, closeouts were iffy and Brandon Clarke couldn’t get any help when Hachimura sat with two fouls.
Thankfully for the Zags, the first-half defensive performance wasn’t the storyline.
Do not, under any circumstances, count out this team
There’s a moment midway through Tame Impala’s single “Elephant” where the instruments abruptly stop, all thanks to frontman Kevin Parker whispering “here he comes.” This eerie whisper ushers in a kaleidoscope of gritty, warbly synths that give color to what once was a traditional, psych-rock stomp. It’s a jarring moment, but Parker makes the transition work.
In the same way, you can’t put this Gonzaga team in a box after one mediocre half. And you certainly cannot count them out until the buzzer sounds. The Zags can turn on a dime like none other. Someone is always primed for a second-half resurgence — even if they didn’t make a lot of noise in the first half.
In this case, that person was Zach Norvell. The lefty had five points on 2-8 shooting in the first half, but didn’t let that deter him in the second. Norvell opened the second half by going 4-4 from the field (on three threes), then finished with 28 points.
But Norvell wasn’t the only player with a resurgence in the second half: Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura round their rhythm on the glass and on defense. Clarke had five rebounds and no blocks or steals in the first, then picked up five more boards and two blocks and steals in the second; whereas Hachimura only grabbed three boards in the first half, but added eight in the second. It goes without saying both bigs finished with double-doubles (27 and 10 for Clarke; 22 and 11 for Hachimura).
Norvell’s performance lifted his teammates. Even role-player Corey Kispert — whose three at 13:06 gave Gonzaga its first lead since leading 5-2 in the opening minutes — stepped up, giving them virtually no weak links on the floor.
The fact that this team will only get deeper once Crandall and Killian Tillie return should put the rest of the nation on notice. Gonzaga simply has too many weapons for opponents to address. Most importantly, however, the difference-maker will always be Few’s uncanny ability for shutting out the noise and finding the player who will come out of nowhere to lead the charge.