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Gonzaga’s focus to be tested again against visiting Pepperdine

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 3, 2020

It took one half against the projected last-place team in the West Coast Conference to disprove the common perception that Gonzaga was entrenched at No. 1 and would go largely unchallenged early in the conference season.

The Zags sidestepped the hex that has dogged college basketball’s No. 1-ranked teams, and top-five teams for that matter, but it required some fancy footwork in the second half Thursday against 22-point underdog Portland.

Gonzaga (15-1, 1-0 WCC), outplayed and outworked in the first half, regained the form that pushed it to the top of the rankings and claimed a 13-point road win.

“It definitely opened our eyes, humbled us,” senior point guard Ryan Woolridge said. “Just being the No. 1 team and you have that sense you’re going to go beat anybody, this game showed anybody can compete with us.”

The Zags’ focus will be tested again Saturday against visiting Pepperdine, which was picked fourth in the WCC preseason poll but is off to a rocky start with a talented but shorthanded roster.

Pacific beat the Waves 59-56 on Thursday in Malibu, California. Pepperdine made just 26.8% from the field, its coldest shooting night in nearly seven years.

Pepperdine (7-8, 0-1) has three of the WCC’s top seven scorers in point guard Colbey Ross (19.5), senior forward Kameron Edwards (16.7) and his younger brother, sophomore forward Kessler (15.3). The trio has scored 64.3% of the team’s points and Ross has additional responsibility as the conference’s assists leader (7.2).

Junior guard Skylar Chavez has provided 10.2 points and perimeter shooting (29 3-pointers), but the Waves lack depth with Jade Smith (knee), Keith Smith (knee) and Andre Ball (season-ending knee injury in the preseason) on the sidelines.

“I would have picked them to compete for some of the top spots early in the year,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “I think they can beat any team, but they’ve shown they can also lose to any team. But they definitely have the talent and experience to beat any of us at the top.”

Few described his team as “extremely vulnerable” after Thursday’s game when the Zags don’t play with purpose and energy. Gonzaga needs to be sharper because the No. 1 ranking has a “huge impact on the teams we’re playing,” Few said.

“I have a really young, inexperienced team that has never been in this situation,” Few said. “(Killian) Tillie has, Corey (Kispert) has as a role player. That’s about it. The other guys that were along for the ride (last season), Filip (Petrusev) and Joel (Ayayi), now they’re thrust into some situations. The grad transfers (Woolridge and Admon Gilder) and the two young freshmen (Anton Watson and Drew Timme) are still trying to find their way.

“It’s a learning process. I thought we’d have more games like that back in November. We survived this one, but we’re going to have to be a lot better.”

The health of several Zags remains a concern. Watson’s left shoulder popped out of place again – he had multiple subluxations against Arizona and one vs. Texas A&M – but he gamely played 12 minutes. Gilder took a hard spill on a dunk attempt but played on.

Tillie had an extended break over the Christmas holiday and sat out Monday’s game vs. Detroit Mercy. Tillie scored 22 points and “calmed us down, even though he’s on one leg,” Few said.

“It was looking good (Thursday) for a while, and then it was back to panic we’re down to six guys again,” Few said. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We just have to get through it.”

Tillie agreed.

“Tough game,” he said. “It was physical, but we’ll be fine for the next game. We’ve been like that before.”

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