Opponents are emptying their defensive playbook at Gonzaga, trying to neutralize the Zags’ size, balance, transition game and ability to get to the free-throw line.
Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans added another chapter Saturday. The Eagles sagged off point guard Ryan Woolridge and center Filip Petrusev, a common ploy from GU foes.
But the Eagles did it with 6-foot-7 Kim Aiken Jr. assigned to the 6-3 Woolridge, though Aiken essentially played free safety in the lane. EWU also opened with point guard Ellis Magnuson defending forward Killian Tillie despite an eight-inch size difference.
The results were mixed, but the end result was Gonzaga putting up a season-high 112 points and Woolridge continuing to make foes pay for leaving him alone behind the 3-point arc.
Woolridge has played in 103 career games, 89 at North Texas and 14 at Gonzaga this season. He launched a career-high nine attempts from deep, hitting three versus the Eagles. UT Arlington tried a similar tactic and Woolridge made 3 of 7, one near the end of the first half that prompted his staredown with Mavericks coach Chris Ogden.
He’s hit 50% (14 of 28) from deep this season. Woolridge has attempted two 3s or less in 12 games.
“I’m not even sure,” responded Woolridge, when asked what his percentage needs to be before teams try something else. “I thought I was shooting at a good percentage for them to come up on me, but I guess I have to shoot it better.”
Opposing coaches have taken note of Woolridge’s 3-point percentage (33.1) at North Texas as well as his limited number of attempts. They’re willing to tempt Woolridge from the perimeter to contain his dribble penetration and pack the lane against GU’s bigs.
“He’s the best 3-point shooter on our team,” Petrusev said. “I don’t know what they’re doing but if they ask me, they can keep doing it, he’s going to knock down 3s. Simple as that.”
EWU was willing to allow Petrusev to shoot from 17 feet and beyond rather than face the 6-11 Serbian in the lane where he makes his biggest impact. On one play, Petrusev had so much open space he dribbled into the lane for a 10-foot runner.
“We didn’t want to guard him (Petrusev) outside of the paint, and he didn’t make any shots out there, but (Woolridge) did,” Legans said. “He stepped up and made shots for them.
“Aiken did what we asked him to do. (Woolridge) didn’t score inside on him, but he did hit some 3s and got out in transition. (Aiken is) a great defender, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. He does a good job of guarding big guys and small guys. He did good, even if the numbers won’t show it, and Woolridge is a very good player who’s going to help them win a lot of games.”
Petrusev made 7 of 9 shots, 10 of 14 free throws and finished with 24 points. Woolridge was 5 of 17 overall and scored 15 points to go with five rebounds and five assists.
Tillie never got untracked. He tried posting up Magnuson a few times, but it didn’t work out. Tillie scored five points in 20 minutes.
“They chose not to guard some people and kind of junk it up and I thought we handled it great,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Ryan’s shooting like 60% from 3 so I’m not sure I’d do that. I thought Filip was really, really good. He had a force about him where he was finishing things around the basket.”
Watson back in action
Freshman forward Anton Watson was back on the floor after sitting out the North Carolina game. The Gonzaga Prep product’s left shoulder popped out of place three times against Arizona, but he returned against EWU wearing a brace.
“I’ve been working on my shoulder the whole week and I practiced (Friday),” Watson said. “It’s a little different (with the brace) but I’m getting used to it. I’ve been practicing with it and working out with it.”
Watson had two points, three boards and a steal in eight minutes. His return extends GU’s rotation to eight with four bigs and four guards. Watson and Corey Kispert are capable of playing multiple positions.
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