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LOS ANGELES — In addition to toppling a marquee opponent and preserving its undefeated record, Gonzaga achieved something far more satisfying Saturday evening.
The Zags secured sweet revenge against a non-conference nemesis that has tormented them in recent years.
Przemek Karnowski scored 18 points and Josh Perkins had 16 as Gonzaga hung on for a 69-62 victory over a 16th-ranked Arizona team decimated by injuries and other issues. The eighth-ranked Zags led by as many as 16 points early in the second half and never trailed the entire game.
Only once did Arizona mount any semblance of a charge, pulling within five with just over a minute to go after a 12-4 spurt aided by six Gonzaga missed free throws. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss halted the Wildcats’ momentum with a driving layup and then the Zags sank 4 of 6 foul shots to douse the threat and stave off disaster.
“There isn’t a program I have more respect for than Arizona,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re a national program and they’re a tough, tough out. The game probably wasn’t aesthetically pleasing by most standards, but at the same time I thought we showed some toughness closing it out.”
Taking down Arizona had to feel especially cathartic for the Gonzaga players who have experienced nothing but heartache at the hands of the Wildcats.
Three times during the past three seasons, Gonzaga tested itself against an Arizona program entrenched as the West’s standard bearer under Sean Miller. Three times, the Zags came away with a loss, each more frustrating than the last.
They fell by 23 points in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament. They fell in overtime in Tucson the following season after Byron Wesley failed to force a second extra period at the free throw line. Worst of all, they squandered a 14-point first-half lead last December in Spokane en route to a rare home loss.
“I can’t even put into words how I feel (about finally beating Arizona),” Perkins said. “My freshman year I had to sit out and watch that one. Then it was a tough one at home giving up the lead last year, which really hurt. I’m proud of the guys for coming up with a win today.”
There was pressure on the Zags to end their losing streak against Arizona on Saturday because the team they played was a shell of previous editions. The Wildcats had only seven scholarship players available with five-star forward Ray Smith lost for the season to a torn ACL, starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright sidelined by an ankle injury and leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier sitting out for the eighth straight game due to undisclosed eligibility issues.
Those absences have taken a toll on an Arizona team that entered the season with Final Four aspirations.
With no true point guard on the floor and a dearth of outside shooters, Arizona’s options on offense were limited. Either they tried to force feed prized freshman Lauri Markkanen, or they sent Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons or Kadeem Allen careening into the teeth of a compact Gonzaga defense designed to close off driving lanes.
Arizona did not make a single 3-pointer in the first half and posted only two assists compared to nine turnovers, huge reasons the Wildcats trailed by 12 at halftime. Markkanen and Alkins carried the Wildcats in the second half, but they still shot only 38.6 percent from the field as a team and 1-for-8 from behind the arc.
Solid defense kept Arizona within striking distance, but neither Dusan Ristic nor Chance Comanche were any match for Karnowski.
When Ristic or Comanche defended Karnowski one-on-one on the low block, the mammoth 7-footer overpowered them for easy buckets around the rim. The few times Arizona sent a guard to dig or double team, Karnowski made them pay with crisp passes to shooters spotted up around the arc.
Karnowski’s 9-for-13 shooting night was especially meaningful to Few because the senior’s career appeared to be in jeopardy this time last year. Last December, a back injury not only ended Karnowski’s season but also left him bed-ridden from morning until night for days at a time.
“It didn’t even look like he was going to play basketball again,” Few said. “He was flat on his back, he can’t even move and the prognosis wasn’t good. A year later, to see him wheeling and dealing, throwing in shots with the left and the right and jumping up and rim protecting, it’s really, really cool. I can’t tell you how happy I am for him.
The impact of Karnowski’s return is just one reason Gonzaga is 8-0 with victories over Arizona, Florida, Iowa State and San Diego State. The Zags have seven players averaging at least 8.3 points per game. They’re efficient on offense and tough to score on defensively.
There’s no better judge of how this year’s Gonzaga team compares to previous ones than Miller, who has faced the Zags each of the past four seasons. The Arizona coach came away impressed after Gonzaga ended its losing streak against his Wildcats.
“They’ve got experience, shooting — especially at the guard spot — and some of their younger frontcourt players do nothing but get better as they continue to practice and play games,” Miller said. “They’re a really, really good team. They’re undefeated right now, and I’m sure they’re well on their way to 30 wins.”
And Saturday’s may be the most satisfying of all.
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