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Gonzaga rewind: Improving Zags, Nolan Hickman's mettle, Graham Ike's paint dominance

Mar. 1—SAN FRANCISCO — Gonzaga's improvement was incremental after falling to Santa Clara on Jan. 11 and more pronounced since stumbling late in a 64-62 loss to Saint Mary's in early February.

The Zags have won seven in a row and 12 of their past 13, but they face their biggest West Coast Conference obstacle Saturday in Moraga, California, when Saint Mary's attempts to close out an unbeaten conference season.

Two Zags' victories were much-needed Quad 1s, elevating their record to 2-5 in that category with another opportunity versus the Gaels. The latest was a convincing 86-68 win over San Francisco on Thursday that Dons coach Chris Gerlufsen cited as another example of GU players embracing their roles.

"Credit to Gonzaga's team, they've evolved as the season has gone along," Gerlufsen said. "For them to play three big guys and figure out how to do it and how to operate — the efficiency numbers off are off the charts.

"I felt good at half because, although (Graham Ike) had a good first half, we had limited the other guys. Unfortunately you can't let (Nolan Hickman) and some of the other guys get going."

Our latest Gonzaga rewind delves into another big game from Hickman and Ike.

Hickman bounces back

The junior guard, like most of his teammates not named Ike, had a first half to forget: 1 of 5 from the field, 0 of 2 from distance, three points, one turnover, zero assists.

Hickman's second half: 6-of-8 shooting from the field, 2 of 4 on 3-pointers, 19 points, one assist and lavish praise from coach Mark Few.

"In years past, he has a rough first half, he hasn't been able to flip the switch," Few said. "He really changed it in the second half. And Ryan (Nembhard) did a good job. (USF) guards are so physical and quick. They're hard to create offense against. Ryan did a really good job of getting into our actions and getting us (playing) with great pace."

Hickman had his hands full on defense with 6-foot-2, 200-pound guard Marcus Williams, who went on a 16-point scoring spree in the final 2:15 of GU's 77-72 win in Spokane. Williams picked up where he left off, scoring nine points in the first 7 minutes and handing out five assists in the first 12:30.

Hickman, Nembhard and Anton Watson slowed down Williams and guard Malik Thomas in the final 20 minutes. Williams had two points and one assist. Thomas, who had 13 first-half points, scored seven of his 10 second-half points in the final 4:25 .

"They were making some tough shots in the first half," Hickman said. "If we kept contesting, they're not going to make those consistently. We locked in on Thomas, not letting him get those 3s off."

Hickman is averaging 15.9 points and connecting on 45.5% of his 3-pointers in WCC play.

Ike stacks up points

The junior forward's WCC Player of the Year candidacy is gaining steam after scoring a season-high 26 points for the second straight game. Ike has posted 13 games with at least 20 points in the past 18, elevating his scoring average from 13.4 to 16.7 (in just 23.6 minutes per game).

"Graham's playing at a phenomenal level," Gerlufsen said.

Ike is shooting 75% from the field and 91.3% at the foul line in the past four games.

"He's been delivering in there," Few said. "They were doubling him and he was still delivering through a lot of that. It's amazing, we still have to yell at him to post up and ask for the ball. He's such an unselfish guy, he'll stand outside the lane and watch Ryan operate or Anton operate."