INDIANAPOLIS — Corey Kispert scored 15 of his 23 points by halftime and No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga rolled in its NCAA Tournament opener, beating Norfolk State 98-55 on Saturday night.
Anton Watson had 17 points on 7-for-7 shooting for the Bulldogs (27-0), who shook off a slow few opening minutes and easily handled the 16th-seeded Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions.
Next up for the undefeated Zags is Oklahoma in the second round of the West Region.
Gonzaga led by 22 points before the break and kept stretching the lead after halftime, avoiding even a hint of vulnerability to an improbable upset that has befallen only one No. 1 seed in tournament history. It has won 31 straight dating to last season.
“We just want to win this tournament,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the pursuit of finishing unbeaten. “That’s all we want to do is just win this tournament. Obviously if we win the tournament we end up undefeated, but I’ve never heard any of the guys talk about it. The staff doesn’t talk about it. I don’t talk about it. Gosh, man, we just want to win this thing.”
The Bulldogs made 16 of 25 shots (64%) after an 0-for-4 start. Kispert knocked down five 3s in the opening half, while Watson offered some immediate interior production off the bench.
By the end, Kispert had made 8 of 12 shots and 6 of 9 3-pointers to lead an attack that shot 55.7%, including 14 of 27 from behind the arc.
Devante Carter and Kyonze Chavis each scored 12 points for the Spartans (17-8), who had won seven straight. The streak included a blown 19-point lead during a 54-53 victory over Appalachian State in Thursday’s First Four.
The program has a notable tournament upset in its history: a win as a 15 seed against No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012. But the Spartans couldn’t add an even more improbable upset, falling behind by double digits midway through the first half as the Zags — averaging a national-best 92.1 points — started getting their offense to hum.
Norfolk State shot just 30.6%.
“I think that we let the moment get away from us a little bit,” Spartans coach Robert Jones said. “We put the pressure on ourselves instead of the pressure being on them. Because honestly it was no pressure on us, but we played that way.”
Jones knew the daunting challenge facing Norfolk State for this one, saying his Spartans were playing with “house money” in taking on “the Lakers of college basketball.” They even danced around at the free-throw line near the Gonzaga bench before tip-off, then scored the game’s first four points before it turned like so many 1-vs-16 matchups before.
“We haven’t played the way we’d been playing to get 17 wins this year,” Jones said. “I told them at halftime I wasn’t quite sure what team this was out there.”
There’s history on the line for Gonzaga in this tournament run as the top overall seed for the first time in program history. Earlier this week, the Zags became the 14th team to complete a start-to-finish stay atop the AP Top 25 poll. And they’re trying to become the first team to finish as unbeaten national champion since Indiana in 1976. Saturday night was another step toward that goal for a team that has won every game but one this year by double-digit margins.
Watson, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, entered the game averaging 7.2 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting nearly 63%. He made an immediate impact by getting free in the paint against some zone looks from the Spartans.
“Honestly in the zone, that’s like my favorite spot to play is just in the middle because you basically have control of the whole game at that point,” Watson said.
“They played zone a lot. I knew they were about to do that. So I enjoyed that. I was looking for my shot and being aggressive the whole time.”