The inaugural Battle in Seattle lived up to its title: it was a battle. A national television audience on CBS and a near sold-out Key Arena crowd witnessed a nail-biter as the Gonzaga University Bulldogs hosted the University of Missouri Tigers. In an impressive display of character, the Bulldogs refused to quit and dug out a gutsy overtime victory, 87-80.
The #3 ranked Tigers took advantage of the cold-shooting Bulldogs, who missed their first six field-goal attempts in the opening minutes, and never trailed in the half. Missouri's talented frontline flexed its muscle through the likes of phenom-freshman Linas Kleiza. Kleiza gave the Zags trouble by scoring and gathering offensive boards to give his Tigers' several extra chances on the offensive end. Gonzaga's big men were having a difficult time offensively. Standouts Ronny Turiaf and Cory Violette scored only two and zero points, respectively, in the opening twenty minutes. But Gonzaga answered with their freshman phenomenon, Adam Morrison. Morrison's offense would help keep Gonzaga in the game, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the first half. While Morrison connected on the offensive end, Erroll Knight brought some defensive spark off the bench. Knight's quickness and intensity created several turnovers in the Zags' full-court pressure. Gonzaga's zone-defense was effective, holding the Tigers to 35% shooting from the field. In one impressive sequence, Gonzaga blocked three shots in a row, created a turnover, and Morrison scored a fast-break lay-in to tie the contest at 22 apiece. Two late Missouri treys gave them the half-time advantage, 38-35. Perhaps one of the determining factors in Missouri's lead was out-rebounding Gonzaga 25-15; too many times had the Tigers had second-chance points because of their work on the offensive glass. Both teams' stars, Blake Stepp for Gonzaga and Rickey Paulding for Missouri, were limited in their scoring. Stepp scored only two points and Paulding was held to five.
That would change in the second half.
Stepp opened the half for the Zags by cutting the lead to one when he was fouled attempting a trey and connected on all three free-throws. Ronny Turiaf awoke in the second half by scoring only his second bucket of the contest, giving Gonzaga its first lead of the game, 42-41, at the 16:00 mark. A lob from Stepp to Turiaf capped a 7-0 run that gave GU the 45-41 lead. The run was helped in-part by the Tigers missing 5 of 6 free-throws. Someone had to commit those fouls and the offenders were Gonzaga's frontline. Turiaf, Violette, and Richard Fox were each tagged with four fouls and with a scary 7 minutes left. The foul trouble forced Gonzaga's bigs to play soft and cautiously. A Paulding three recaptured Missouri's lead, 61-60 with 4:49 remaining. On the next play Stepp drove the lane and his shot was blocked. Mark Few became enraged, arguing that the call should have been goal-tending. Few's shouts were awarded with a technical foul; a potential game-breaker. Missouri connected on both free-throws to gain a three point advantage, but didn't capitalize on the extra offensive opportunity. Missouri's Josh Kroenke scored a trey to make it 67-62 with 3:36 to go and the situation looked grim. The following offensive set for the Bulldogs was a circus, seeing Gonzaga score 6 points in only 10 seconds. Turiaf was fed inside, made the shot, and was fouled. His bucket cut the lead to 67-64. Ronny missed the free-throw, but Knight skied for the offensive board. Errol kicked the ball out to Stepp for an open three, which Blake narrowly missed. Violette gathered another offensive board. Cory took the ball up strong, scoring his first and only bucket of the game, and was fouled in the process. He missed the free-throw, but this time Turiaf retrieved the missed shot and got the bucket. This sequence not only gave GU the incredible 68-67 lead with 2:08 remaining, but turned the Key Arena crowd to a frenzy. Gonzaga led by as many as three points when Ronny Turiaf was fouled and made both free-throws with 1:55 to play. Missouri tied the basketball game when Kyle Bankhead was whistled for a soft foul and the Tiger was able to connect on his double-bonus, making the new score 70-70 with 1:29. Bankhead made up for his foul by rebounding a critical Missouri miss and being fouled in the process. Kyle mad both of the double-bonus shots, putting the Zags back up by two, 72-70 with only 52 seconds lingering on the clock. Missouri purposely fouled Turiaf with 24.3 seconds, following another blank on their offensive end, hoping for a miss or two to still give them a chance. The Tigers got their wish. Turiaf made only one of two, making it a one-possession game. Down by three, Missouri had the choice of scoring a two and hope for another Zag miss or to attempt to tie the game with a three. Missouri's Rickey Paulding chose the three, shaking a Gonzaga defender and sinking long-range bucket.
Tie game, 73-73, and going into overtime.
The extra period was just as demanding as the second half for the Bulldogs. Missouri opened overtime being hot from the outside and grabbed the early lead. The Bulldogs battled back with the help of Turiaf, playing with four fouls. His bucket with 1:01 to play in OT gave Gonzaga an 81-80 advantage. At the other end of the floor, Turiaf took an offensive charge against Paulding with 36.2 seconds remaining in the extra period. Only six seconds later, Adam Morrison was fouled and connected on his free-throw attempts to make it 83-80 Gonzaga. Looking for another three to save his team again, Paulding made a crucial mistake by stepping on the sideline, putting the ball back into the hands of the Bulldogs. With the clock against them, the Tigers fouled Kyle Bankhead. Bankhead, who hadn't missed a free-throw in the game, calmly sank both with 13 seconds remaining. Stepp collected a Missouri miss and was fouled with four seconds remaining. If he made the free-throws or not, it didn't matter, the Zags were the victors. Stepp made both, making the final score a misleading 87-80 win… it just wasn't that easy.
With superior defense, clutch free-throw shooting in the stretch, and huge heart, Gonzaga gained the victory over the third ranked Tigers, the highest ranked opponent ever to fall to the Zags. Equally impressive in the Bulldog's win was the obvious team-first mentality of the players. Each individual seemed willing to play the role necessary under the pressure-packed circumstances to ensure a victory. Next Saturday the No. 9 Stanford Cardinal will test the newly ranked, No. 13 Zags at the Bay Area Pete Newell Challenge.