Nine days can be a long time to stew over a loss, to ponder all that went wrong.
Nine days was exactly how long the Gonzaga Bulldogs had to wait between an unexpected stumble in their conference tournament final and the opening round of the West Region in Salt Lake City.
They used it to their advantage.
The top seed in the West burst out of the gates on Thursday night, scrambling on defense and pushing relentlessly upcourt with the ball, looking like a team that had something to prove.
All of which translated into a big lead by halftime and a convincing 87-49 victory over No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“Super-duper locked in,” guard Josh Perkins said. “It showed in our focus and our intensity.”
The Bulldogs’ victory began with that defensive effort, which held Fairleigh Dickinson to 30% shooting and uncharacteristically low numbers from three-point range. Gonzaga dominated on the boards, too, finishing with a 47-30 rebounding advantage.
On offense, star forward Rui Hachimura led all scorers with 21 points.
“We came out with good energy from the beginning,” Hachimura said. “I think that was big-time for us.”
If nothing else, the win might answer some questions that have lingered from a sluggish performance in the West Coast Conference tournament final earlier this month.
Saint Mary’s upset Gonzaga, 60-47, in that game by slowing the pace and playing defense with a particular concentration.
“Our deal was we don’t let Hachimura have a lot of room,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Anytime he had the ball he was going to see a lot of bodies.”
The loss knocked Gonzaga from No. 1 down to No. 4 in the final poll before the NCAA Tournament. As the team arrived in Utah, coach Mark Few talked about a week’s worth of watching game film and ruminating.
“It would have been nice if we could have played a game a day or two later,” Few said. “Maybe not as much time to dwell on it.”
But Perkins and some of his teammates suggested the disappointment pushed them to practice harder. Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda could sense it from the start of Thursday night’s game.
Gonzaga looked rested, ready and “maybe a little angry they did not win their conference championship,” Herenda said.
The Bulldogs opened a 10-point lead in the first four minutes. They pressed the length of the court, dove for loose balls and forced missed shots from long and short range.
“It was hard to get down the lane on them,” Fairleigh Dickinson guard Darnell Edge said. “When you did, they had a shot blocker.”
The Knights knew they faced long odds as a 16th seed that had earned its way to Salt Lake City by defeating Prairie View in a First Four game earlier this week in Dayton, Ohio.
“We got here on Wednesday afternoon and played Gonzaga on Thursday afternoon,” Herenda mused. “You know what I’m saying?”
If the underdogs had any thoughts of making history, those hopes were dashed for good when the Bulldogs went on a 19-0 run to close the first half.
There was still 20 minutes to play but, with the score at 53-17, the game might as well have been over.
For the night, Gonzaga shot better than 53%, made nine of 21 three-point attempts and held a wide edge in fast breaks, second-chance baskets and points in the paint.
“Just a great performance,” Few said.
The coach began pulling his starters off the floor, giving his bench players some March Madness experience, with six minutes remaining. By that time, his team had given their best answer to doubters who wondered if they warranted a top seeding after that Saint Mary’s loss.
“We think we’re the top team in the nation,” forward Corey Kispert said.