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It's not supposed to be easy…and it wasn't. The San Francisco Dons were a large hurdle for the Bulldogs to clear in their quest for Mark Few's 100th victory. In a hard fought battle, Gonzaga came out on top 82-71.
The game was well-played at both ends of the floor by both teams. When the Dons scored the first basket, on a three, the fans knew they were in for a roller-coaster ride. Kyle Bankhead's play kept Gonzaga close in the opening minutes. He hit two buckets, not from behind the arc, but in the paint. His hustle plays gave the Zags extra opportunities or stopped the Dons' runs.
Things looked bad when Cory Violette picked up two quick fouls and watched the remainder of the half on the bench, keeping him for the second half. Zach Gourde was assigned the task of guarding the Dons' biggest threat, Darrell Tucker. Tucker, one of the best players in the league, who, at 6'9", can play inside or out. Gourde never allowed Tucker to get a wide-open look and cut off his drive. However, Gourde too would fall victim to the whistle, collecting two fouls of his own. Thus, the game after Richard Fox broke his finger was the game the Zags could have used him most.
Tyler Amaya replaced Gourde, for a guard-oriented offense with Ronny Turiaf the sole survivor among Gonzaga's vaunted front line. Tucker immediately scored over Tyler, but Amaya responded with the first three of the half for the Zags. Blake Stepp and Darrell Tucker each finished with 12 points in the half, which ended knotted at 31-31.
The Dons came out after half time on fire and quickly gained the lead. Kyle Bankhead, once again, came through for the Zags, keeping them within striking distance. He hit several key treys and when he stole a pass that resulted in a Stepp lay-up, it was perhaps the turning point of the game.
Gonzaga regained the lead at 64-62 with less than five minutes remaining. It was still anyone's game, but the Zags went on a 12-0 run and pulled away from the Dons. Tony Skinner sank four critical free-throws and grabbed equally key rebounds. Stepp hit his only trey of the night and steady free-throw shooting by Ronny and Blake capped the run. Stepp went 10-11 from the charity stripe and Turiaf continued his success at the line, going 12-14. Gonzaga held its largest lead of the game at 76-62 with two minutes remaining.
Gonzaga's steady free-throw shooting sealed the game and created a final score that didn't indicate the true battle these two teams fought. Darrell Tucker led the Dons with a season-high 26 points, including 5-9 from beyond the arc. Blake Stepp had another stellar night, though his three-point shot didn't fall as consistently as in previous games. Still, he continually challenged the Dons, driving the lane for a lay-in or pulling up for jumpers off the dribble. Stepp poured in 27 points, grabbed 7 boards, and handed out 5 assists. Ronny Turiaf collected his 8th double-double of his career, tallying 24 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. Kyle Bankhead finished with 13 points, going 3-3 from three-point land and Tony Skinner collected 10 points. However, all the Zags contributed to the outcome.
Gonzaga faces the University of Portland Pilots on Wednesday and will meet Tulsa University Saturday night in ESPN's "Bracket Buster Saturday" nightcap game.