Analysis: Gonzaga holds off late Illinois charge to win opener of Maui Invitational
LAHAINA, Hawaii – Gonzaga did something that defied all odds Monday at the Maui Invitational.
The third-ranked Zags committed 14 turnovers in the first half – charges, errant inbound passes, ill-advised drives into traffic, forced passes after ill-advised drives into traffic – and still led by seven points.
Just when it looked like the Zags had settled down in the second half, they started missing free throws, committed more turnovers and let Illinois guard Trent Frazier get loose behind the 3-point line.
The Illini cut a 13-point deficit to two on three occasions, but the Zags held on for a hard-fought 84-78 victory before a packed crowd of 2,400 at the Lahaina Civic Center.
The Zags (4-0) moved into Tuesday’s semifinals against Arizona (4-0) at 7:30 p.m.
The Wildcats, who hold a 6-2 edge in series meetings with the Zags since the 2001 season, rallied past Iowa State 71-66.
Illinois’ steady diet of pressure and contesting every pass rattled the Zags at times. It also created a frenetic pace that resulted in ragged stretches by both teams.
Beneath the rubble of those miscues was the fact that Gonzaga, when it kept control of the ball, generally got quality looks at the basket and applied heavy foul pressure on another opponent.
“We have to clean up some things at the end of games,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “When you’re under the bright lights and playing against a team that is built to bring a lot of adversity, that’s what Illinois does a phenomenal job with. They force a high number of turnovers.
“But when you’re strong with (the ball), and get through that wave you shoot a high percentage at the other end.”
Reserve forwards Jeremy Jones and Filip Petrusev were outstanding in the opening half, helping GU endure many of its mistakes.
Gonzaga finally gained some separation from the scrappy Illini (1-2) late in the first half. Jones had consecutive buckets to bump GU’s lead to 29-23. Zach Norvell Jr., who was early in foul trouble, drilled a corner jumper and Jones buried another 3 just before the shot clock expired to give Gonzaga a 39-32 lead at half.
“He basically won that game for us,” Few said of Jones.
Jones had 12 points – establishing a career high – at the break to go with seven rebounds. Petrusev, who entered following Brandon Clarke’s second foul at the 18:23 mark, chipped in five points and six boards.
Those rebounds came in handy in light of another first-half head-scratcher – Rui Hachimura and Clarke combined for zero boards. The first rebound from the pair came by Hachimura with 15:30 left in the second half.
By then, the Zags had stretched their lead to 52-41, and it reached 54-41 on Hachimura’s two free throws. Hachimura and Clarke combined for GU’s first seven points in the closing half.
Frazier, who returned to the starting lineup after a one-game absence in concussion protocol, tried to keep the Illini close. He had 11 points in the first 7:30, keeping Gonzaga’s lead at 59-49.
Clarke’s blocked shot led to a Norvell layup in transition, giving GU another 13-point edge, but the Illini trimmed the margin to nine. They had a chance to edge closer but Frazier finally misfired on a 3-pointer.
Frazier kept shooting with confidence and he hit a pair of 3-pointers – one from about 24 feet with the shot clock about to run out – to fuel a 10-0 run that cut Gonzaga’s lead to 69-67 with 5:47 left.
“We saw what he did last year shooting the ball,” Few said. “He made some big shots.”
GU was still nursing a two-point lead when Corey Kispert connected on a big 3-pointer from the wing to boost the margin to five. Hachimura added another 3-pointer to extend the lead to 78-69 with 2:11 left.
It still wasn’t over. Frazier hit another 3 – his sixth of the game – while getting fouled. His free throw with 1:01 remaining trimmed the Zags’ lead to 80-78.
Frazier’s fake created space against Hachimura, but the Illini guard airballed an open 3-pointer with 12 ticks remaining. Jones finally put it away with a pair of free throws.
“There are thoughts going through your mind,” Jones said, “but I shoot free throws ll the time, I work on them and it’s just a matter of doing what you’ve done so many times.”
Hachimura led Gonzaga with 23 points. Jones had 14 points and 11 boards. Norvell scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half. Josh Perkins endured a hot-and-cold night, finishing with 10 points, nine assists and seven turnovers. Clarke added 10 points and five blocks.
“There’s not a better defensive player in the country than the Clarke kid,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “He’s sensational. We tried everything we could do to get him out of the action.”
Frazier poured in 29 points.
Gonzaga was in the bonus at the free-throw line for 21:14. The Zags failed to capitalize, making 23 of 35 attempts.
GU hit 53 percent from the field, but finished with 22 turnovers.