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With Erroll Knight, Sean Mallon and Richard Fox leading cheers from the bench, and the Kennel Club providing a wall of boisterous red as a background, Gonzaga showed Bulldog Determination to throw down the talented Golden Hurricane of Tulsa, 69-60.
Seniors Zach Gourde and Winston Brooks were given a thundering farewell by an appreciative crowd, while they provided inspired play to help keep Tulsa from spoiling their send-off. Zach was particularly pivotal in the first half as the Golden Hurricane came out white-hot, and the Zags were ice cold. Zach scored 8 first half points, to lead Gonzaga scorers. He ended the night with 9 points, 6 rebounds, a blocked shot, and he drew an astonishing three charging calls. For his part, Winston dished out 3 assists, grabbed 3 rebounds, and had a steal, while he hit his final two shots in the Kennel, both from the charity stripe.
The sweetest triumphs are those that are hard-earned against a quality opponent. Certainly, Saturday night's game fit that description. Tulsa started the season ranked the 17th team in the country, but lost seven of their last 11 games after Christmas to fall out of the rankings. However, the Tulsa team that the Zags faced lived up to their pre-season billing.
The game began with two Tulsa hoops and the quickest technical a coach has ever earned. The technical was given to the GU bench after an objection to an obvious goal-tend that went uncalled. Tulsa, however, didn't capitalize and missed both free-throws. Unable to jump-start their offense and shut down the Golden Hurricane's, Gonzaga found itself trailing 20-9. After an offensive foul was whistled on Cory Violette, the Bulldogs created a rare turnover and went on a 9-0 run. Eerily reminiscent of the Zags' loss to Portland, Gonzaga's run was quickly erased by Tulsa's own. The Bulldogs' had to overcome shooting woes, going 2-12 from behind the arc and 30% overall. Fortunately, free-throw shooting was consistent for the Zags, keeping them close as they connected on 9 of 11 in the first half. Tulsa took an eight point lead, 35-27, to the locker room.
Gonzaga became a different team in the second half. Ronny Turiaf provided the team with his energy and frightening athleticism. Whether he was converting on ridiculously high, too high, lob passes in traffic, or smothering, not just blocking, Tulsa shots, the fantastic Frenchman brought the crowd to a frenzy.
As their offense began to click, the Zags chipped away at the Golden Hurricane's lead. After Tulsa had, once again, recovered from a Gonzaga run, Josh Reisman hit a critical trey with his team trailing 51-44. His shot would propel Gonzaga into a 13-0 run. Blake Stepp provided the Zags with their first lead, scoring on a NBA-length three, followed by a high-arcing lay-up over three challenging Tulsa defenders, one of whom was whistled for a foul. Stepp sunk the charity shot, putting Gonzaga ahead 53-51. With Gonzaga's defensive intensity being fueled by Ronny and his intimidating swats, Kyle Bankhead buried any Tulsa hopes of a comeback when he drained a trey, then, and after gathering a rebound, Kyle hit a cherry-picking Stepp for an uncontested lay-up.
The icing on Zach's and Winston's farewell cake was provided by Cory Violette, who dominated the glass down the stretch. After he grabbed an offensive board with one hand, he shook off three Tulsa defenders with his free hand, and thundered the ball through the iron. The crowd went wild and so did Cory. Violette looked like the Wooden candidate he is, hitting on a variety of shots, and generally overpowering Tulsa's front line as he recorded another double-double.
A real team effort supported Cory's 15 point, 10 rebound effort: Blake Stepp chipped in 15 points and 8 assists, and Ronny Turiaf barely missed a double-double of his own as he scored 14 points and collected 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. Tony Skinner connected on two timely three pointers. Tulsa was paced by guards Jason Parker and Dante Swanson, who tallied 24 and 16 points, respectively, and combined for six three pointers, some from radar range.
Next, Gonzaga returns to WCC action with crucial games at Santa Clara and San Diego this Thursday and Saturday, respectively, to wrap up regular season play.