Gonzaga coach Mark Few was just glad the North Carolina game finally arrived after hearing about it for six months from fans “in a good way.”
Senior guard Ryan Woolridge didn’t want to get caught up in all the hype surrounding the matchup against one of college basketball’s premier programs, but it happened anyway. For a minute or two.
“At the beginning of the game I was like, “Wow,’ I’m a little starstruck,’ ” Woolridge said. “And then I saw (North Carolina) coach (Roy Williams) and I said, ‘Oh wow, I’m actually playing against him.’ But during the game, it was just a regular game.”
And that’s just about how the Zags treated it. They revved up their offense, led by Corey Kispert’s 26-point eruption, and ran away from the Tar Heels 94-81 Wednesday in front of 6,000 delirious fans at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
It was pretty much business as usual for the Zags, who demonstrated why they’re one of the nation’s top offenses and the only team in the country with six players averaging in double figures. They shot 59% from the field. They had their typical widespread contributions, with five of the seven that played scoring in double digits.
“We didn’t want to change a thing against these guys,” Kispert said. “The reason why we’re so good is we do what we do, no matter who we play against. Moving the ball, popcorning it around, guys making shots, getting open looks.”
It looked familiar to Williams, who has guided North Carolina to three national titles.
“Wonderful atmosphere, love Mark’s team,” Williams said. “I talked to our guys about that’s how we played for years and years and years ourselves, getting big guys who could really run the floor, score inside and hope we have some guys that can make some 3-point shots.”
Kispert made his first two shots, missed his next two and then connected on his final eight attempts. The 6-foot-7 junior drilled 5 of 6 from deep, but he also scored off the bounce, on pull-ups and added a dunk in transition.
“I’ve worked really hard at expanding it and growing it,” said Kispert, who played extended minutes at the ‘4’ for the second straight game with GU’s limited frontcourt depth. “I’m not the flashiest player. I’m not going to break anybody off with a crossover. I can score at all three levels, hit shots and take lanes when they’re open.”
Filip Petrusev led the frontcourt scoring with 20 points, eight coming at the free-throw line. Woolridge had 11 points and nine assists. Joel Ayayi produced 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals. Admon Gilder chipped in 11 points.
“Awesome, great, cool,” Ayayi said. “I’m smiling because it was just so cool. The atmosphere and seeing all these people here, to me it was like giving back to Spokane for those people who have been there when the program was not as good as it is today. It was awesome for them.”
The Tar Heels (6-5) have dropped four in row for the first time since the 2009-10 season. They weren’t at full strength with standout point guard Cole Anthony sidelined by a knee injury. Guard Brandon Robinson played nearly 16 minutes in the first half but fell ill at halftime and didn’t return.
They actually had one of their better offensive performances, scoring a season-high 81 points and shooting nearly 46%. Forward Garrison Brooks scored 16 points, and Christian Keeling added 12.
“They’re injured, beat up and battered, but they’re still Carolina,” Few said. “And they can still bring it and score buckets.”
Just not enough to keep pace with the Zags (12-1), who aren’t at full strength either and haven’t been all season. Freshman forward Anton Watson (shoulder) didn’t play, and Killian Tillie, coming off a sprained ankle against Arizona, had an off night. He scored nine points but was limited to 15 minutes due to foul trouble.
Kispert’s three-point play and dunk pushed Gonzaga’s lead to 41-27. The Zags let the Tar Heels back into the game with two turnovers and several empty possessions, including a missed layup and a shaky last possession of the half that resulted in Ayayi’s desperate 3-point attempt. UNC stitched together a 10-3 spurt to trail 44-37 at the break.
Gonzaga opened the second half with four scoreless possessions and saw its lead trimmed to 44-39. Petrusev maneuvered for a three-point play, Kispert connected from 24 feet and Ayayi hit a 3 as GU pulled away 60-42.
“It’s tough when there’s more than one person to key on,” Woolridge said. “If somebody isn’t having a good night, somebody else is going to step up.”
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