Gonzaga’s first week as a ranked team can be labeled anything but easy.
After rallying for their latest win, the 17th-ranked Bulldogs try for a sixth consecutive victory while facing another stiff challenge against visiting Wake Forest on Saturday.
Gonzaga (6-1) returned to the Top 25 for the first time this season after winning three straight games to claim the Maui Invitational title. The Bulldogs’ stay was almost a brief one, but a gutsy second-half performance helped overcome a 13-point deficit to beat rival Washington State 74-69 at home Tuesday.
Matt Bouldin had a career-high 28 points and freshman Elias Harris scored 21 of his 24 in the final 20 minutes as Gonzaga shot nearly 63 percent in the second half while holding the Cougars without a field goal for a 10-minute span late in the game.
“That was one of the most courageous performances I have seen in this building,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Since opening in 2004, Gonzaga is 65-3 on its home court of the McCarthy Athletic Center, otherwise known as “The Kennel.” In front of the usual loud, sellout crowd, the Bulldogs have won 11 in a row there since being upset 77-70 by Portland State on Dec. 23.
Gonzaga should be in for another test in its first meeting with perennial ACC power Wake Forest (4-2), which is trying to avoid a third straight loss after falling 69-58 at No. 4 Purdue on Tuesday.
The momentum generated from their latest home win should have the Bulldogs ready. The fact that a team with little experience has overachieved early on could also help.
Bouldin, the lone returning starter from last season’s 28-6 team that reached the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, is averaging 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
The 6-foot-7 Harris (14.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg), junior guard Steven Gray (14.1 ppg) and sophomore forward Robert Sacre (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) have all contributed to Gonzaga’s early season success.
The Bulldogs are averaging 76.9 points per game on 48.0 percent shooting, while holding opponents to 40.2 percent from the field.
Gonzaga will likely need another solid overall effort against Wake Forest, which hasn’t lost three in a row since a four-game skid from Feb. 24-March 4, 2008.
After committing 25 turnovers while being upset 78-68 at home by William & Mary last Saturday, the Demon Deacons turned the ball over the same number of times and were outscored 40-27 in the second half by the Boilermakers.
“The turnovers in the second half was the difference in the game,” Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. “I think our kids fought hard.”
Though Wake Forest is shooting 38.1 percent over its last two contests, Gaudio has some talented scorers led by forward Al-Farouq Aminu.
The 6-9 sophomore leads the team with 17.7 points and 11.0 boards per game, but has scored a combined 36 points in his last three games. He’s 7 of 29 from the field in the two losses.
C.J. Harris and Ishmael Smith each scored 14 points to lead Wake Forest against Purdue.
The Deacons have not lost consecutive games against ranked opponents since dropping five in a row from March 11, 2006-Dec. 5, 2007.