The Gonzaga Bulldogs built an early double-digit lead behind a hot-shooting Kyle Wiltjer, and that proved too much for the Washington State Cougars to overcome in a 69-60 Zags win at Friel Court on Wednesday night.
Transfer 7'0 center Conor Clifford got the start for the Cougs alongside Josh Hawkinson in the frontcourt, perhaps to match Gonzaga's size. But Gonzaga's own 7-footer was a late scratch, and Hawkinson was charged with guarding Wiltjer. That didn't go well.
Wiltjer lit it up in the first 10 minutes, hitting his first four 3-pointers en route to an early 20 points. Eventually Junior Longrus was the primary defender on Wiltjer, and he went scoreless in the second half until a pair of meaningless garbage-time free throws. But the damage was already done. WSU would pull within six points twice, but the Cougs could never get within a single possession of the Zags.
For all the pub that Gonzaga's frontcourt gets, it was the backcourt that starred in the second half. Redshirt freshman guard Josh Perkins hit a number of big shots to fend off WSU's charge, finishing with 16 points on 6-12 shooting.
In the end, the story of the game was Gonzaga's stifling defense. WSU did miss its fair share of bunnies, but they were usually contested bunnies. For the most part, the Cougs were forced to take a heavy dose of mid-range jumpers. If not for Que Johnson's 18 points on 8-14 shooting, things could have been a little uglier. Ike Iroegbu chipped in 17 points, but took 17 shots and a pair of free throws to get there.
Overall, WSU's 42 eFG% wasn't going to cut it. The 13 turnovers look bad, and many of them felt back-breaking, but on 72 possessions that was actually lower than the Cougs' season average turnover percentage.
Hawkinson's near no-show on offense was a big disappointment. He didn't shoot well, making just 1 of 5 from the floor for four points. Gonzaga clearly wasn't going to let him get going, as evidenced by the low number of shot attempts. It's a wonder if Hawkinson is still bothered by the groin injury that held him out against Cal State Los Angeles.
Something has to be said for WSU's defense. It came with a lot of energy, and the Zags were held under 1.0 points per possession for the first time this season. Gonzaga was forced into 16 turnovers, 14 of which came on WSU steals. Junior transfer guard Charles Callison led the way with four steals, while Longrus added three. Outside of Wiltjer's red-hot start, Gonzaga struggled to get going and that's why WSU was able to hang around for most of the game.
There are some what-ifs for the Cougs: What if Longrus started on Wiltjer? What if they made a few more layups? Things certainly could have been different in the end. But they didn't quit, and showed off their new-and-improved athleticism and quickness, and that's something.
The Cougs are back on the court Sunday, as they host Portland State at 1 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks.