Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer 230d

Gonzaga's overlooked defense key to Final Four dreams

LAS VEGAS -- Gonzaga can score with the best teams in America.

On Tuesday night, however, the Bulldogs demonstrated the value of their defense -- the key to their Final Four hopes -- when they held Saint Mary's, one of America's best offensive squads, to 18 points in the first half of a 74-56 win in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game at Orleans Arena.

"Defensively, they're hard to score on," said Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett, whose team averaged 73 points before Tuesday.

Early in the first half, Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga's 6-foot-9 starting power forward, switched off a screen and stood in front of Saint Mary's point guard Emmett Naar.

Naar, who is 6-1, darted around the perimeter like a cornered mouse.

But Williams extended the broomsticks jutting from the shoulders of his 221-pound frame, tracked Naar step for step and snuffed every dream the 43 percent 3-point shooter imagined when he saw the big man shuffle toward him.

Naar never touched the ball on that possession because he couldn't escape Williams' reach.

"We can switch with [6-9 Killian Tillie], we can switch with Johnathan Williams and we can even switch with [7-footer] Zach Collins," Bulldogs coach Mark Few said after the game.

Gonzaga's potential to make program history by reaching the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona, centers on its defensive talent, the most impactful element of its 32-1 season.

The most efficient defense in Few's tenure at Gonzaga boasts an abundance of defensive playmakers, a first for the Bulldogs.

With former players such as Adam Morrison, Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga rarely entered a season under Few with an offensive deficit. But defensive breakdowns stopped past Bulldogs assemblies short of the Final Four.

Last season, the Bulldogs held a late 59-54 lead over Syracuse but surrendered a 9-1 run in the final three minutes of a loss in the Sweet 16. Duke made 42 percent of its 3-pointers against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight in 2015. In 2014, Arizona scored 84 points in a 23-point win over the Bulldogs in the Round of 32. Wichita State shot 50 percent from the field as it upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Round of 32 of the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Now, the Bulldogs will enter this year's tournament with the defensive credentials to battle the uber-athletic opponents they could not handle in the past.

They entered Tuesday's game ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.86 points per possession allowed), per ESPN.com. If that holds, it would rank as the top mark in Few's tenure in Spokane, Washington.

The improvement starts with Williams.

His length and combination of defensive execution -- in space and at the rim -- limits the mismatches Gonzaga faces on that end of the floor. He's comfortable against big men or perimeter players.

And he's smart.

On Tuesday night, Few said Williams pushed Saint Mary's guards left after he noticed on film that they seemed more comfortable going right. Few said he'd trust Williams to guard any player on an opposing team with the game on the line.

"He's quite a weapon to have," he said.

Przemek Karnowski had four blocks. And Nigel Williams-Goss finished with 22 points but also had six steals. Saint Mary's committed 10 turnovers in the first half, which Bennett said "is a joke for us."

But the Bulldogs weren't laughing when Saint Mary's launched a 28-12 rally in the second half and cut Gonzaga's 21-point halftime advantage to five.

For nearly eight minutes after that run, however, Gonzaga held Saint Mary's without a field goal. In all, Saint Mary's scored a putrid 0.82 points per possession against the Bulldogs.

"This is an excellent defensive team," Few said.

And malleable.

Two years ago, Gonzaga faced Iowa in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs' defensive ace at the time, Gary Bell, could guard all five positions. On multiple possessions in the second-round win over the Hawkeyes that year, Bell, who is 6-2, guarded 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury.

Few praised Bell's contributions after that game.

But Few needed Bell to make those defensive plays to give Gonzaga a chance to advance.

This season, he does not rely on one or two players.

He now possesses an entire roster of active defenders, and that's why Gonzaga can reach the Final Four.

After the game, Bennett lamented the hole his Saint Mary's team dug for itself in the first half of Tuesday's loss.

"I won't sleep well tonight," he said.

And the coaches who scout Gonzaga in the coming weeks and realize the breadth of the Bulldogs' defense might toss and turn in their beds, too.

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