Overview: In its 94-87 home victory, Gonzaga showed a ton of toughness in staving off a talented Baylor team that has made significant strides since losing home games against Charleston and Northwestern. The Bears threatened to seize the momentum numerous times in the second half, but on each occasion the Zags came up with huge answer shots to keep Baylor at a distance. Gonzaga went up by 10 points early in the second half and maintained at least a five-point cushion the rest of the way.
Kevin Pangos scored a season-high 31 points on 10-of-13 shooting for 13th-ranked Gonzaga, which improved to 12-1. The victory was the fourth for Mark Few’s squad over a Big 12 team. Gonzaga has also defeated West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas State. It plays Oklahoma State on Monday in Stillwater.
Turning point: Baylor missed a golden opportunity trailing 80-74 with just under 5 minutes remaining in the second half. The Bears got the ball to Brady Heslip, their top 3-point shooter, who was standing alone at the top of the key. It was one of the few times all evening that Heslip had broken free from his defender. If Heslip would’ve capitalized with a basket from beyond the arc, it would’ve been a one-possession game. Who knows what happens after that? Instead, Heslip fired up a shot that didn’t even hit the rim. It caromed off the glass and the Zags got the rebound. Pangos made the Bears pay with a 3-pointer on the other end that made it 83-74 Gonzaga. Baylor never posed a serious threat after that.
Why Gonzaga won: Pangos was obviously huge, but not many teams in the country have a frontcourt as strong as the one at Gonzaga. Seven-footer Kelly Olynyk had 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting while Elias Harris added 17 points. Both players are matchup nightmares because of their ability to handle the ball away from the basket, which makes them a threat to score in a variety of ways. Gonzaga’s overall mental toughness was also huge. Few’s squad never appeared rattled despite trailing for most of the first half. And when leading after intermission, the Zags didn’t appear fazed when Baylor looked poised to make a run. In those moments, Gonzaga simply got tougher. It helped that this game was played in Spokane, but with students out of town for winter break, the Kennel wasn’t as rowdy as usual.
Why Baylor lost: The Bears are still too sloppy and careless with the ball in key moments. Pierre Jackson often looks like one of the top point guards in America, but standout performances like Friday’s -- he scored 26 points -- are soured when you look at the turnover stats and see Jackson with seven of them. His backcourt teammates are also guilty of trying to do too much at times. There’s no need to attempt half-court alley-oop passes in the second half of close games, where every possession is magnified. On the defensive end, Baylor looked soft and/or confused in the paint. Gonzaga had five traditional three-point plays -- “and-1s,” as some call them -- in the second half alone. Some of it is understandable. Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers and Taurean Prince are freshmen and junior Cory Jefferson hadn’t played much before this season. On Friday they were going against a senior All-America candidate in Harris and a Canadian national team member in Olynyk. No need to chastise the youthful Bears for losing that battle.
What it means for Gonzaga: Those that have followed Gonzaga’s program closely over the years think that this might be Few’s best team yet. Anyone who watched the Zags on Friday would have a tough time arguing that point. Gonzaga touts one of the country’s top point guards in Pangos and a frontcourt that is as strong as any in the nation. This team has the poise and moxie of a winner. There is nothing soft about this bunch. One area of concern would be the Zags’ defense on the perimeter, as Jackson wasn’t the first elite-level guard to have his way with Gonzaga. Let’s also not forget that this team lost at home to Illinois and needed a last-second layup by Pangos to beat a mediocre Washington State team on the road. The Zags are vulnerable, just like any other team. Still, when everything is clicking, this looks like a top-10 squad that is more than capable of making the Final Four.
What it means for Baylor: The Bears should be encouraged. If ever there was a time to feel good after a loss, this is it. Three weeks after that dreadful loss to Northwestern in Waco, Scott Drew’s squad went on the road and dropped 87 points on the country’s 13th-ranked team. The Bears shot 51.6 percent. Granted, their defense was atrocious, so that’s a concern. But if it plays as well in the Big 12 as it did Friday, there’s no reason Baylor can’t finish second in the conference behind Kansas. Austin, a 7-foot freshman, looked like a top-10 draft pick while scoring 20 points against strong competition. Even with his turnovers, Jackson looked like one of the top five point guards in the country, and Gary Franklin continues to improve off the bench. Drew has shortened his rotation, as only seven Bears played double-digit minutes. That’s a good thing. Baylor’s shot selection seems iffy at times, but it’s hard to criticize Drew’s team too much considering it shot 51 percent Friday and ranks 24th in the country with a 47.9 percent mark on the season.
What’s next: Gonzaga plays Oklahoma State in Stillwater on New Year’s Eve. It will likely be the toughest road environment the Zags will experience all season. Baylor’s next game is its Big 12 opener against Texas in Waco on Jan. 5.