The Gonzaga Bulldogs jumped out to a 9-0 start for the 2012-2013 season, securing their best start in program history and a No. 10 ranking. But the No. 13 Illinois Figthing Illini came into Spokane representing the Zags’ biggest test of the early season and the Bulldogs high-powered offense went cold in the 85-74 loss.
After playing to a 41-41 tie at halftime, Gonzaga came out the second half and struggled to make shots, shooting just 38 percent after the half. The offensive outage was enough to cost the Zags at home and led to their first loss of the season.
“We had a lot of good looks and didn’t shoot it as well as we wanted,” head coach Mark Few said. “We missed some wide open looks.”
For a team that averaged more than 80 points per game entering their showdown with the Illini, Gonzaga’s offensive numbers look pretty paltry. The team was led by Kelly Olynyk who scored just 16 points while Elias Harris chipped in 15 and Gary Bell Jr. added 12.
They endured a six minute stretch without a field goal in the second half, but were still able to close the gap to 68-64 late before Illinois responded and pulled away.
Illinois took advantage of Gonzaga’s off night and executed offensively, led by Brandon Paul who finished with 35 points and shot 5-of-9 from beyond the arc. The senior guard keyed a rally in the first half that tied the game at the break and then led the Illini to victory down the stretch.
Gonzaga, who normally plays excellent defense, had no answer for Paul, who was constantly finding open space to knock down open looks. Few said that the Zags “didn’t have a guy who could guard him one-on-one,” and Paul made them pay for it.
Gonzaga will now have to regroup and overcome their first setback in what has been a very positive season so far. The Zags will need to find some new methods of scoring the ball when shots aren’t falling by driving to the rim or feeding the low post to give themselves a viable backup plan. They also need to step up the defensive intensity to prevent one opposing player from taking over the game like they did on Saturday with Paul.
If the Bulldogs hope to make a run this March in the NCAA Tournament, they will need to take some tough lessons away from this loss and continue to grow. If they can’t improve on what they struggled with against Illinois, then the Final Four drought in Spokane will continue for another year.