SEATTLE — Gonzaga was close to perfect for 10 minutes. It was attacking on offense and causing havoc defensively.
And then Mark Few’s team slowly became passive, and South Alabama made the 20th-ranked Bulldogs scrap for a 68-59 victory on Saturday night at Seattle’s KeyArena.
“We didn’t play good and South Alabama deserves a lot of credit for that,” Few said. “They started going at us and exploiting a lot of areas we were struggling in and they took full advantage of it but we hung in there and kept them at arm’s length and made just enough plays.”
Gary Bell Jr. scored 14 of his 20 points in the first half, helping Gonzaga get off to a fast start. Sam Dower Jr. had 10 of his 12 points before the break.
A few days after rallying from a double-digit deficit to win at West Virginia, it was the Bulldogs who watched most of their early 19-point lead evaporate only to hold on in the closing minutes and answer every charge made by the Jaguars.
The Bulldogs raced to a 22-3 lead in the first 10 minutes behind nine early points from Bell. South Alabama got as close as eight in the second half, but the Bulldogs had an answer for every surge.
“We’re going to learn from this,” Dower said. “We made a lot of mistakes and there are a lot things we can build on, but we got the win.”
The Bulldogs (10-1) were making their annual visit to KeyArena, but South Alabama lacked the cache of previous opponents. The Bulldogs had faced Connecticut, Davidson, Illinois, Arizona and Kansas State in Seattle the previous five years and they were hoping to draw another big program for 2013. Those plans fell through, leading to the visit by South Alabama.
Bell and Dower helped the Bulldogs overcame an off-shooting night for leading scorer Kevin Pangos, who made 3 of 12 shots and finished with 10 points. Pangos came in averaging 19.6 points per game. The Bulldogs came in as the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the country at 47.6 percent, but were just 2 of 14 beyond the arc.
“We had wide open 3 looks that we’ve been making all year and we just didn’t make them,” Few said.
Augustine Rubit led South Alabama (5-5) with a career-high 35 points. No other South Alabama player had more than eight points.
Rubit made 11 of 16 shots and all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
“Not a lot of people have had an opportunity to watch him,” South Alabama coach Matthew Graves said. “He’s a high-major player that has kind of been a hidden secret for a long time.”
Gonzaga were challenged by the Jaguars after the opening 10 minutes. The Bulldogs outscored the Jaguars 22-3 over the first 10:10 of the game. Gonzaga raced ahead with a 16-2 spurt that included nine points from Bell. South Alabama missed nine of its first 10 shots and had four early turnovers.
The 19-point advantage was the biggest of the game and the Jaguars made the game competitive in a hurry. After going 10-plus minutes with just three points, South Alabama scored 11 points in 69 seconds, eight of those from Rubit. It was the start of a 20-8 run by the Jaguars that got them within seven.
And just as quickly, the Zags retook control before halftime.
The Bulldogs closed the half on an 11-2 run that included Przemek Karnowski scoring for the first time since the opening minute of the game. Kyle Dranginis then made a floater just before the halftime buzzer and the Bulldogs had regained nearly all of their 19-point advantage from earlier in the half.
Pangos was held to one point in the first half and didn’t make a field goal until the 14:25 mark of the second half. The open 3 was the start of a personal seven-point spurt by Pangos that kept Gonzaga’s lead at 11.
Rubit did his part to keep South Alabama close. He scored eight of nine points during one stretch of the second half, but the Jaguars could never get closer than eight.
“We took a couple of bad shots which led to their 3s and they stayed pretty much around that range of nine or 10 (points) pretty much the entire game,” Bell said. “We’ve got to play better.”