SEATTLE — Anytime he got the chance, Kelly Olynyk’s intent was to dunk.
That’s a significant change from a couple of years ago when Gonzaga’s 7-footer was content to hang around the perimeter and shoot from the outside rather than imposing his size down low.
“He’s a smart player, one that can hurt you in a lot of different ways passing, driving and scoring,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing — he went from a guy who loved to just play out there on the perimeter to a guy who is 7-feet tall and can use those skills down low.”
Olynyk dominated inside with 20 points and No. 14 Gonzaga rebounded from its first loss of the season with an impressive 68-52 win over Kansas State on Saturday night.
Making their annual trip to Seattle, Olynyk and the Bulldogs (10-1) controlled the interior and wore down the Wildcats in the second half. Olynyk’s highlight was a rattling, one-handed slam with about 9 minutes left that drew a technical foul for screaming, but also gave the Bulldogs a 14-point lead.
That was one of four dunks from Gonzaga’s rapidly improving center that helped the Bulldogs outscore Kansas State 38-12 in the paint.
“I just had that mentality today to dunk everything,” Olynyk said.
Gary Bell Jr. added 11 points for Gonzaga, which played before its extensive fan base in the Puget Sound region for the 10th straight year and improved to 6-4 in the event. It was a chance for the Bulldogs to erase the disappointment of their last outing a week earlier when defensive lapses and a red-hot Brandon Paul keyed Illinois’ 85-74 victory that snapped the best start to a season in Gonzaga history.
There was no lingering hangover from the loss. Olynyk made 10 of 13 shots, falling just short of matching his career high of 22 points when he fouled out with 4:56 left. Even more impressive for Gonzaga was its domination inside without getting a big game from Elias Harris, who finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
While the balance Gonzaga had offensively, with seven players scoring at least five points, was extremely important, defense was the focus most of the week after the Bulldogs allowed too many open looks against Illinois.
“I didn’t think we were going to go undefeated this year playing the schedule we have but we needed to get back to who we are on the defensive end,” Few said. “We were there tonight. I’m not going to make any proclamations, but we got back to getting our feet under us and guarding the way we need to guard to be successful.”
Angel Rodriguez led Kansas State (7-2) with 14 points, but leading scorer Rodney McGruder had a miserable night. McGruder didn’t score for the first 30 minutes and finished with four points.
McGruder, who came in averaging 12.9 points, shot 1 for 9 from the floor.
“That’s about as good a defense I’ve seen a Gonzaga team play,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “They locked in on Rodney. We probably didn’t screen as well as we need to do to help him get open, but he’s also got to shoot open shots when he has opportunities.”
After using Guy Landry Edi on McGruder for most of the first half, the Bulldogs stuck Mike Hart on the Wildcats’ scoring leader to start the second half. He was immediately flustered, committing turnovers on Kansas State’s first two possessions, and Gonzaga started the half on a 9-0 run to take a 36-26 lead with 16:28 left.
Kansas State briefly stemmed the run, but Edi’s 3-pointer with 12 minutes left pushed the lead to a dozen and Olynyk’s dunk that drew the technical capped another 11-2 spurt by the Bulldogs.
The 3-point shooting that kept Kansas State hanging around in the first half disappeared during the final 20 minutes. The Wildcats shot 1 of 6 on 3-point attempts in the second half. Rodriguez had only two points after the break and Gonzaga’s lead reached 21 in the final minutes.
Gonzaga plays one more non-conference game before Christmas, then closes out the year with games against Baylor and at Oklahoma State before starting West Coast Conference play.
“Guys responded. They responded to this crowd, to playing over here,” Few said. “It means a lot to a lot of them to play good over here.”