It was nothing Gonzaga followers haven’t seen before, but it was still impressive, even by the Bulldogs’ lofty standards.
On the season’s biggest stage thus far, the top-seeded Zags’ trademarks were on full display: lethal transition game, paint domination and dazzling passing and cutting.
And, oh yeah, they can play adhesive defense, too. There were so many highlight-worthy plays offensively that it nearly overshadowed another quality defensive effort against one of the nation’s better scoring teams.
The final math: Gonzaga 83-65 over fifth-seeded Creighton on Sunday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, sending the Zags to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in the past six tournaments.
“That’s been our identity all season,” said junior guard Andrew Nembhard, who had a few jaw-dropping dishes among his eight assists. “We play our best when we’re just moving the ball because we have so many pieces and so much versatility. It’s just like playing in a park with a bunch of guys that click so well.”
Gonzaga (29-0) moved within three victories of an unbeaten season, something that hasn’t been done since Indiana ran the table in 1976. GU has won a Division I record 26 consecutive games by double figures.
The Zags made it look almost effortless as they carved up Creighton’s defense. How’s this for consistency? The Zags shot just below 60% in each half and made the Bluejays pay for daring GU guards to shoot from beyond the three-point arc.
The Bluejays (22-9) were determined to limit the damage of all-Americans Corey Kispert and Drew Timme. They gave Nembhard, Joel Ayayi and Jalen Suggs space on the perimeter as they dedicated additional attention on Timme inside and Kispert on the three-point line.
It was evident 30 seconds into the game when Nembhard buried a three-pointer that the strategy wasn’t going to bother the Zags’ dynamic offense. Nembhard and Ayayi combined for five threes as Gonzaga sprinted in front 20-12 in the first five-plus minutes.
“Our numbers ended up great,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It’s not anything we haven’t seen before. They were playing soft and going under (screens on) some guys. These guys have dealt with that all year.
“I think probably when you guard us, you’ve got to pick your poison a little bit. Joel was shooting 40% from three. Our guys get different (defensive) schemes that people choose and then they adjust accordingly.”
Timme worked over Creighton forward Christian Bishop and backup Ryan Kalkbrenner. Kispert stayed patient and took only one shot in the first 20 minutes. The offense didn’t miss a beat as Gonzaga led 43-33 at the break.
“The thing that jumps out at me is Kispert had two points at halftime and we’re still down 10,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “He’s so valuable to what they do, and obviously we committed a lot to take him away. There’s so many ways that they can beat you. … They had 50 points in the paint on us again, and that’s with us trying to take that part of their game away.”
Gonzaga’s 23 assists helped create those 50 paint points. So did the Zags’ 14-0 edge in fastbreak points. Suggs finished with six assists and Timme added four.
McDermott thought his team could make a run in the second half, but instead the Zags took off again. Even worse for the Bluejays, Kispert heated up, scoring first in the lane, then on a putback before swishing his first three-point attempt to put Gonzaga up 56-39.
“We had to win that first four-minute timeout,” McDermott said. “Instead, they were able to take that lead from 10 to 14, and then it’s an uphill battle against a team like that.”
The Zags scored six points, all on layups, in the span of 45 seconds to go on top 62-42 with 11:20 remaining. The margin was 27 with 4:42 left.
Gonzaga has outscored three tournament foes by 25.7 points, nearly a three-point increase over its first 26 victories.
Timme finished with 22 points and Nembhard added 17 on 7-for-9 shooting. Ayayi had 13 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Kispert was right behind with 12 points and seven boards.
Marcus Zegarowski scored 19 points for Creighton, but wasn’t much of a factor after a 13-point first half.
“Their players get easy layups and easy baskets at the rim,” Zegarowski said. “We wanted to really pack the paint in and make them beat us by taking jump shots, but they obviously hit shots. They got hot early and kind of kept that going.
“But a team like that, they don’t just beat themselves. It’s hard to explain, but it was their night. It’s life, it was their day.”