MALIBU, Calif. — Add Pepperdine’s quaint Firestone Fieldhouse to the list of WCC venues that seem to give the Gonzaga men’s basketball team trouble.
The 10th-ranked Bulldogs, outplayed most of the first half, turned the momentum with a timely contribution from their bench, a steady performance by Elias Harris and another strong second half from Kelly Olynyk to pull away for a 78-62 victory Thursday in the conference opener for both teams.
Gonzaga (14-1) has won five straight entering Saturday’s showdown with Santa Clara (12-3, 1-0 WCC) at the Leavey Center, another of the Bulldogs’ least favorite destinations.
This one had a similar feel to last year’s contest at Firestone, when the improving Waves were within three points in the second half before Gonzaga slowly took control. Gonzaga used a 13-5 run to wipe out Pepperdine’s 36-35 lead early in the second half. Another 9-2 spurt gave Gonzaga a double-digit lead with 5:45 remaining.
“It wasn’t our best performance, but we were starting conference (play) on the road and Pepperdine is getting better,” said Harris, who had team-highs with 18 points and six rebounds. “It’s a different Pepperdine than Pepperdine in the past. It was a battle, but we were poised enough to get the win.
Gonzaga trailed 14-6 but caught up soon after David Stockton, Przemek Karnowski, Sam Dower and Mike Hart entered the game. Stockton piled up seven points, three steals and two assists in the first half.
“He was the one guy that was being proactive and I had a whole team of guys being reactive,” coach Mark Few said.
Stockton’s steal and clever layup underneath Caleb Willis’ arm gave Gonzaga its first lead, 23-21. Stockton followed that up with a 6-footer in the lane and then assisted on Gary Bell Jr.’s lone field goal, a 3-pointer from the corner with 3:15 remaining.
“I have the luxury to sit and watch and see what the team is doing and I can go out and just help in any way possible,” said Stockton, who finished with nine points, four steals and three assists. Stockton’s steals were instrumental in Gonzaga’s 21-10 edge in points off turnovers.
“That’s something I’ve always tried to do and kind of lost sight of,” Stockton said of converting steals into points. “It was fun to fly around and get my hands on a lot of things and disrupt a team.”
Olynyk’s only basket of the first half came with 43 seconds to go but he warmed up in the final 20 minutes. The 7-foot junior had 14 second-half points.
The Zags had slow starts in each half, endured their worst shooting night of the season (43.4 percent) and were outrebounded for just the second time (36-30), but they took care of the ball (eight turnovers) and put up 48 points in the final 20 minutes.
“We had some strange looking plays at the start, passing to guys and hitting them in shoulders, (guys) falling down and 2-3 blooper-type plays,” Few said. “Basically Pepperdine was outhustling us. They were more physical than us, which is rare because we’ve been pretty physical all year.”
Guards Lorne Jackson (16 points) and Jordan Baker (15) led Pepperdine (8-6), but they combined for nine turnovers.