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Gonzaga rewind: Bulldogs' stifling defense, Ryan Nembhard's 3-point shooting stand out in Pepperdine win

Jan. 5—There's a good chance Gonzaga players, coaches and fans took note of other results around the West Coast Conference after the Bulldogs dispatched Pepperdine 86-60 on Thursday night at the Arena.

The scores themselves weren't all that surprising — not nearly as much as the manner in how they happened.

San Francisco, a team that entered WCC play ranked No. 39 in NCAA NET, needed to erase a five-point deficit with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining to force overtime and avoid an upset loss at No. 357 Pacific. Preseason WCC favorite Saint Mary's needed a second-half surge to pull away from a San Diego team picked to finish last in the conference.

Gonzaga, meanwhile, didn't have to deal with much adversity in its WCC opener, building a double-digit cushion after less than 8 minutes and leading by as many as 35 points late in the second half against Pepperdine.

"I think we've kind of had an off year for (the WCC) in the nonleague when you look at how we've primarily been," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "These teams are always better than I think people give them credit for nationally. There's a lot of good players in this league. There's some excellent coaches in this league that do a great job of game-planning and try to take you out of stuff."

Gonzaga (10-4) can probably expect more resistance than it received Thursday when it returns to the Kennel to play San Diego (10-6). For now, we'll take another look back at how the Zags picked up their 10th win with a focus on GU's lockdown defense and Ryan Nembhard's improved 3-point shooting.

Turning the tide

Six days after conceding 46 points in the second half of a loss to San Diego State — the second most Gonzaga has allowed in any half this season — the Bulldogs followed with one of their better defensive halves of the season.

Pepperdine, which has routinely been one of the WCC's top offensive teams under coach Lorenzo Romar, was limited to 27 points in the first half and made just 8 of 30 shots from the field through the first 20 minutes.

The Waves endured two scoreless stretches of at least 2 1/2 minutes, missing six consecutive shots during a 3:28 stretch, then went 4:31 without a field goal during a stretch that allowed the Zags to build their lead to 21 points.

"I think we at one point had them at 0.75 (points per possession) before we started really, really subbing in at the end, which is excellent," Few said.

For context, Pepperdine has averaged 1.06 points per possession this year, ranking No. 98 in the country, according to TeamRankings.com.

The Bulldogs keyed in on Michael Ajayi and Houston Mallette, who came in as the conference's top two individual scorers at 17.3 and 16.7 points per game, respectively, along with preseason all-conference forward Jevon Porter, who made his first start since returning from a right leg injury.

Ajayi and Mallette still scored in double figures, and both came close to reaching their season scoring average, but their 29 combined points came on 5-of-24 (20%) shooting from the field. The Zags became the first team to hold both players under 30% from the field in the same game this season. Porter struggled in his fourth game back, making 3 of 12 shots and scoring six points.

"Those guys are talented, man. I'm telling you," Few said. "I mean, they're really, really talented and the guy they added, Ajayi, he's a heckuva player. But also what Porter can do. Obviously, Mallette's as good of a shooter as there is out there, so I think we did a great job on those guys then the first 2 or 3 minutes was a little shaky on the boards, but we shored that up and did a nice job there moving forward."

Sight for sore eyes

Nobody was happier to see Nembhard knock down a 3-pointer than the point guard himself.

After missing the rim on his first 3-point attempt — not the last airball that would be cast by someone in a Gonzaga or Pepperdine uniform — Nembhard connected on his second try. It marked the junior's first 3-pointer since the first half of a Dec. 5 game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He'd missed his past 16 attempts from 3-point range.

"It felt good, it's about time," Nembhard said. "I'm trying to kind of have a mantra of new year, start fresh. It felt good, I'm consistent with my work and it just felt good to see them fall."

Nembhard knocked down his second 3 midway through the second half, catching a kick-out pass from forward Graham Ike before rising up from the left corner.

The Creighton transfer said he hasn't necessarily put more time into his perimeter shooting, sticking with the same routine that allowed him to make 35% of his 3's last season in the Big East.

"No, I work out a lot," he said. "I'm pretty consistent in the gym so same routine, just being confident in my shot."

Nembhard's still shooting under 20% from 3-point range this season, but Thursday marked just the second time he's made multiple 3s in a game at Gonzaga. The point guard scored in double figures for the fourth straight game, finishing with 10 points to go with seven assists, two turnovers and two steals.

Remembering '99

Scattered throughout a Arena crowd of 12,015 on Thursday were members of the 1998-99 team that made a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight before eventually losing to eventual national champion UConn. The group is widely credited for triggering Gonzaga's historic run of 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths.

Players from the 1998-99 team, including Casey Calvary, Axel Dench, Richie Frahm, Zach Gourde, Quentin Hall, Mike Nilson, Matt Santangelo and Mark Spink, were honored at midcourt during a pregame ceremony. Sy Eaton, the son of former GU center Jeremy Eaton — who died of cancer in April 2022 — stood in his father's place on Thursday.

"We're going to get all weekend with them, so it's going to be a fun weekend," Few said. "Even some of the older guys before that will all be around. I want to get these guys around them a little bit as much as we can, but it's hard. We've got a game to play on Saturday. So you've got to be cognizant of that, but it's always awesome when any of our former players come back.

"That's what this place is all about."

Approximately 40 players from former GU teams were expected to attend "The Reunion," a Friday night event at Gonzaga's Myrtle Woodson Performing Arts Center sponsored by The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages Book Club.