SALT LAKE CITY – Take a wild guess which Zag was picked to place a Gonzaga sticker on the Sweet 16 line of an oversized NCAA tournament bracket inside the locker room.
“Don’t put it on there crooked,” one teammate instructed. “Take your time big fella,” another coached.
Brandon Clarke, as he did during the previous two hours with his monster performance in Gonzaga’s 83-71 victory Saturday over Baylor, nailed the finish, inserting Gonzaga’s name and patting it a few times to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere.
Clarke, by virtually any measure, had the best NCAA tournament game in GU history with 36 points, eight rebounds, five blocks, three steals and two assists.
More on how the junior forward did it and another defensive-minded effort by Zach Norvell Jr. in the latest Gonzaga rewind.
Clarke didn’t leap tall buildings, but he mesmerized fans sitting courtside with the sheer speed and elevation of his leaps. Baylor coach Scott Drew noted Clarke’s quick first jump made it difficult to keep him off the boards, maybe the best illustration being Clarke’s mid-air, putback slam of Killian Tillie’s missed alley-oop dunk.
Clarke’s athleticism turned away Baylor at the rim with five blocks. Left uncounted was the numerous shots directed off target just by his presence.
Baylor often encountered Clarke in the paint with unfavorable results. Tillie, Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert also provided rim protection at times.
Clarke was even better at the offensive end. He had a few tough finishes, one from 10 feet barely beating the shot clock, but mostly it was dunks (five, though the official stats listed four), layups and floaters from close range. He dominated in transition and in the half-court, against Baylor’s zone or man.
“Against that zone, a lot of those shots around the rim are heavily contested and coming at weird angles,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “But he can hit those floaters and spin off defenders. His mobility and ability to pop up off the floor and shoot over them was a difference-maker.”
Clarke and Hachimura took it right at Baylor forward Mark Vital early in the second half when Vital was in foul trouble. Tillie didn’t rack up the points but he snagged six rebounds and had a pair of assists, connecting with Clarke on a lob pass for a dunk.
“That was the plan,” Lloyd said. “He (Vital) kept getting out of the way. That kind of saved us. They were making that run and (Vital) got his fourth foul.”
Who drew that fourth foul? Take a wild guess. Clarke.
SNACKS SWEET ON D
There were two bullet points on Gonzaga’s scouting report: Win the boards and limit Baylor’s three-pointers.
Norvell contributed to both causes. For the second consecutive game, Norvell defended the opponent’s best perimeter player. The result was much the same as Thursday, when Fairleigh Dickinson’s Darnell Edge, who had a career-high 33 points in a First Four victory, managed just seven points on 2-for-11 shooting.
Norvell’s assignment was Baylor point guard Makai Mason, the Bears’ leading scorer and one of a handful of three-point threats. Mason, slowed by a toe injury, had a miserable first half. He made 1 of 8 shots and misfired on all three three-pointers as GU constructed a 39-23 lead.
The Zags opted for Norvell because he had played so well against Edge and because of his 6-foot-5 frame on the 6-1 Mason. Norvell welcomed the challenge.
“Run them off the (three-point) line as much as possible and help each other on downhill drives,” said Norvell, called ‘Snacks’ by his teammates. “It was big for us to key in on the three-point shots and make them do something else.”
Baylor, two nights after drilling 16 threes against Syracuse, went 4 of 21. Mason finished with 17 hard-earned points, making just 5 of 16 shots.
“Just pride,” Norvell said. “I’m trying to knock off the thoughts of only being a shooter. Trying to play both ends of the floor and stopping guys at the other end is just as important as making 20, 30 points a night.”
On the rebounding front, Norvell snagged seven boards and the Zags won the glass 39-27.
The Bears are one of the nation’s top teams in offensive rebounding. They had some success, hauling down 12, but they didn’t do much damage with just 14 second-chance points. Gonzaga, meanwhile, collected 13 offensive boards, good for 19 points.
“Those were the two areas (rebounding and limiting three-point damage) we wanted the guys to focus on with a short prep,” coach Mark Few said. “And as is always the case with this group, they went out and did it.”