Being a top-25 program has its ups and downs. With success comes respect and respect brings teams who will always play their toughest against you. They will never give in; they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Players will break out for career nights and the crowd will be bigger and louder. Gonzaga has discovered, now that they are an elite team, they will never be given an easy game.
The University of Montana, whose record was 1-4, played like a 4-1 team in front of a home crowd in Missoula. Undersized, undermanned, and lacking experience, the Grizzlies first came out playing timid basketball and allowed GU to jump to a ten point lead. The Zags' guards played exceptionally well. Winston Brooks led the guards with two 3-pointers and a jumper in the opening minutes and Blake Stepp and Tony Skinner both hit threes. The Bulldogs began to relax and the Griz took advantage of the opportunity. Montana forced ten turnovers, including six steals, and a little known redshirt freshman, Kevin Criswell, went unconscious. He stole multiple passes for easy lay-ins, he snuck in for rebounds, hit clutch threes, and scrambled after every loose ball. Criswell picked apart the Zags lead, scoring 21 points in the first half. At intermission Gonzaga found itself trailing the Grizzlies 37-40.
With the crowd on their side and their confidence boosted, Montana came out of halftime smelling victory. The beginning of the half appeared as though their senses were correct. Their defensive pressure, intensity, and desire seemed to double that of Gonzaga's. With Criswell remaining hot and their defense causing turnovers, Montana increased its lead to a game-high 11 points. After a time-out by Coach Mark Few, the Bulldogs came out to play. Kyle Bankhead caught fire and went 3 for 3 from beyond the three point arc; cutting the lead to 5 points. Just like that, GU was back in it. Gonzaga pounded the ball to their bigs and created defensive stops to take back the lead. Stepp's superb defensive effort on Criswell cooled him off (he scored a career-high 29 points; his previous high was 13) and he never threatened again. The icing on the cake came when Blake hit a three with under 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The Zags held a comfortable lead with under a minute left and forced the Griz to foul. Stepp hit the free-throws to seal a 75-67 victory.
Perhaps the stat of the game that revealed a shift in Gonzaga's effort was the rebounding margin. At the beginning of the second half, the Grizzlies were out-rebounding the Zags by 7 boards. By the conclusion of the game GU won the rebounding battle by 4.
The scoring effort by the Zags was fairly even. Stepp scored 22 points and handed out 9 assists, Violette tallied 17 points, Bankhead had 12, Turiaf scored 9, and Brooks totaled 8 points.
The University of Montana played with great heart and gave Gonzaga another big scare. Gonzaga will head to Pullman for an in-state battle against the Washington State University Cougars. After consecutive career nights by two relatively unheralded guards, Criswell and UW's Conroy (32 points), it will be interesting to see how the Zags handle the Coug's Marcus Moore who is among the national scoring leaders.