PORTLAND — Despite nearly posting a double-double performance, Drew Timme didn’t like the way he played in the first half.
“I guess I just had some jitters,” the Gonzaga star junior forward said. “It’s March, you know. My first true March, so I was a little nervous, I guess. Credit to my teammates for telling me to keep going.
“These guys, everyone in (the locker room) said, ‘You’ve got to be you. You’ve just got to post up and get to the basket and do what you do best.’ I just get a confidence boost when guys have your back like that, even when you’re struggling. … That really helped me just get back to doing what I do.”
Behind 32 points from Timme, including 22 in the second half, No. 1 seed Gonzaga overwhelmed and pulled away from No. 16 seed Georgia State in the final 10 minutes to claim a tougher-than-expected 93-72 men’s NCAA tournament victory in front of 14,343 at Moda Center.
GU’s 21-point win belied a hard-fought matchup against a senior-laden Georgia State team that stymied the Bulldogs in the first half.
But that’s the thing with the Zags, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed: They get graded on a curve due to external expectations surrounding a team that lost in the national-title game last year.
For his part, coach Mark Few is trying to enjoy the small steps in what could be a truly memorable Big Dance.
“It feels good to move on,” said Few, who has won 13 consecutive first-round NCAA tournament games. “I always say the hardest thing to do in our sport is get NCAA tournament wins.
“It’s hard enough to get to the NCAA tournament, and once you get here, you know you’re going to play a really good team. We really understood that. I think these guys understood it this week once we started (watching Georgia State film). I kept telling people, ‘That’s not a 16 seed.’ I think they showed it tonight.”
For 30 minutes, Georgia State played with poise, moxie and ferocity that had Gonzaga flummoxed and out of sorts.
The Panthers got into the paint with relative ease. They converted several contested shots. And they were quicker to rebounds while enjoying a 28-23 disparity on the glass.
Of course, the Zags were their own worst enemies while missing 10 of 19 free throws and 9 of 11 three-pointers in the first half.
“It’s really, really important to be the hunter and not the hunted,” Few said. “I thought we were trying to be that in the first half. We just weren’t converting very good.”
It wasn’t until the Bulldogs finally exploited their size advantage that they took control of the game midway in the second half.
Georgia State led 54-52 before Timme made two baskets around the rim, and 7-foot-1 center Chet Holmgren scored on two layups and a free throw to put Gonzaga up 59-54 to start a game-breaking, 31-4 run.
GSU pulled to within 59-57 at the 11:26 mark when Andrew Nembhard dropped a three-point dagger that sustained GU’s momentum.
Finally, the Bulldogs dispatched the Panthers after scoring 21 unanswered points to stretch a 62-58 lead to 83-58 with 5:19 remaining.
“With 11 minutes to go it’s a two-point game,” Georgia State coach Rod Lanier said. “They had a burst that we couldn’t recover from.”
Foul trouble plagued Georgia State (18-10), which had three interior players foul out. In addition, forward Eliel Nsoseme went down clutching a knee in the first half and did not return.
Lanier spent three to four days pouring over video while scouting Gonzaga in preparation for Thursday’s matchup and trying to devise schemes to slow Timme and Holmgren.
“That wasn’t fun watching them on film,” Lanier said. “I saw Chet quite a bit on the AAU circuit with his team. So I knew the size and the skill. … It really is impressive, the footwork, the skill, and knowing that people are gunning for these guys. This really is a special program. I’ve been in leagues with Kansas and Kentucky and Duke, and I understand what it’s like to be in a league with teams that are always the target, everybody wants to beat.
“And the fact that Gonzaga’s built a program like this and those two young men are spearheading those efforts — because the name changes. Next year it will be someone else. But it says a lot about those young guys that they keep taking that on, and it’s really impressive.”
Timme, the mustachioed, headband-wearing whirling dervish, was as good as advertised while converting 13 of 21 shots and collecting 13 rebounds in 27 minutes.
Holmgren tallied 19 points and 17 rebounds, Nembhard finished with 11 assists and nine points, and Rasir Bolton and Anton Watson each had 10 points.
Next up: No. 9 Memphis (22-10), which beat No. 8 seed Boise State 64-53 to set up a second-round matchup with Gonzaga (27-3).
“We know we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “(Timme and Holmgren) are both two great players, and we look forward to the game.”
Said Few of Memphis: “They’re physically imposing. They’re a great rebounding team. We’re going to have to rebound the way we did in the second half, as opposed to the first, to give ourselves a chance. They’ve got some guys who can really shoot it, and we know we’re in for a heck of a ballgame.”
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