By Jim Meehan The Spokesman-Review
SAN DIEGO — There was an echo inside Viejas Arena, and it wasn’t just the endless sound of officials wearing out their whistles.
Gonzaga jumped in front early and spent a good chunk of the rest of the game repelling challenge after challenge from Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs had their share of answers and an equal number of players supplying those answers in an 85-77 NCAA tournament win viewed by 11,196 Friday.
“It would have been easy to relax when you have a lead like that,” said junior guard Kevin Pangos, who had 26 points, his highest total since scoring 34 against Arkansas in November in Maui. “The game kind of had a weird flow to it but we did a good job staying involved and grinding it out.”
After missing six straight free throws that briefly kept OSU’s comeback hopes alive, the eighth-seeded Zags (29-6) made 12 of their last 14 — 10 straight by Pangos — to secure an opening-round NCAA win for the sixth straight season.
Gonzaga now faces top-seeded Arizona (31-4) on Sunday.
Gary Bell Jr. launched GU’s early burst with a pair of 3-pointers and he finished with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Przemek Karnowski had 15 points and 10 rebounds and Kyle Dranginis contributed 12 points.
The Zags needed widespread contributions, a boost from their bench and healthy amounts of patience and toughness to reach the finish line of this 2-hour, 35-minute marathon. There were 61 fouls called and 78 free throws attempted. Five players fouled out.
“We played physical,” coach Mark Few said. “We made shots when we needed to, attacked the rim when we needed to. We knew it was going to be a game like that. We had to match their physicality but also their athleticism, which we don’t have, with some toughness.”
By doing so, the Zags “upset” the favored Cowboys (21-13).
“I think we screwed up a lot of peoples’ brackets,” Bell said. “Right when we got selected, they didn’t give us a chance. We played with a chip on our shoulder.”
Gonzaga started fast and closed fast in the first half. The Zags made their first seven shots, Bell had 10 points by the 4-minute mark and Karnowski added three close-range baskets as GU led 17-6.
The teams traded runs the rest of the half. OSU rattled off 10 straight points as guard Marcus Smart started to warm up when Bell went to the bench with his second foul. OSU pulled within 34-33 after Smart buried a jumper over Dranginis with 2:40 left.
GU led 36-34 when Smart made a steal but fell down in the process. His pass was intercepted by Pangos, who fed Drew Barham for an open 3 that started a 7-0 run.
“He was searching for his shot and I could tell,” Barham said. “I was like ‘Kev, Kev, Kev,’ and finally heard me and kicked it out.”
Smart misfired on a 3 and Pangos drained a trey at the other end. OSU coach Travis Ford, unhappy with the officiating, was hit with a technical foul with 11.1 ticks left and Pangos made 1 of 2, boosting Gonzaga’s lead to 43-34 at the break.
The Zags led by 10 early in the second half after Barham’s second 3, but the Cowboys charged back within 53-50. After a timeout, Bell buried a 3-pointer on a new entry into Gonzaga’s playbook. Pangos followed with a steal and layup.
“We ran a new play there,” Few said, “actually one we’ve never run before. I was just trying to get (Bell) going and fortunately they ran it like we drew it up.”
Smart had an impressive stat line — 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, six steals and six turnovers — but the Zags were satisfied with their defensive effort. Markel Brown had 20 points. Le’Bryan Nash, who averages 14.2 points, finished with six points and fouled out in 17 minutes.
“We wanted to give (Smart) jump shots and just contest it,” said Dranginis, who joined Bell as primary defenders on Smart. “We did a good job of that, especially in the first half. He got to the line a lot in the second half. We just tried to make it hard for him.”