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'He's always able to step up.' Gonzaga's confidence in Dusty Stromer grows after freshman delivers on NCAA Tournament stage

Mar. 21—SALT LAKE CITY — Dusty Stromer's mother and father were in the crowd at the Delta Center on Thursday, traveling from Southern California to Salt Lake City to watch their son's debut in the NCAA Tournament.

Stromer's brother and sister couldn't attend, but they'd already booked plane tickets booked for Friday, anticipating Thursday wouldn't be their only opportunity to see Gonzaga in the Big Dance.

Considering the program's run of first-round NCAA wins — a streak that reached 15 on Thursday against McNeese State — it wasn't a bad bet to place.

"Lot of confidence in us," Stromer said.

The confidence they had in Gonzaga wasn't misplaced, not unlike from the confidence coach Mark Few has shown in Stromer during his first college basketball season.

Speaking of firsts, the past five months have featured one after another for Gonzaga's fast-rising youngster.

There was Stomer's first start, an unexpected development that came two days after a season-ending injury to Steele Venters, and approximately two months later his first benching, following an inconsistent stretch that saw the freshman's confidence dwindle as his production did.

Thursday presented another first for Stromer, easily his biggest to date.

After roughly 4 minutes of action at the Delta Center, Ben Gregg, the upperclassman who replaced Stromer in GU's starting unit in mid-January, picked up his second foul contesting a shot from Javohn Garcia and went to the bench.

In came Stromer, making his March Madness debut inside an NBA arena that had only a handful of vacant seats during Thursday's evening session.

"There's obviously a little jitters," Stromer said, "but once I'm out there running up and down I'm ready to go."

Whatever jitters existed seemed to disappear after 11 seconds. Stromer caught a high cross-court pass from Anton Watson, readjusted his body and knocked down a 3-pointer that extended the lead to 14-7.

Two minutes later, Watson threaded a bounce pass between two McNeese State defenders, finding Stromer on a fast-break layup and the freshman knocked down two free throws not long after that to quickly become GU's leading scorer.

"When he plays with confidence like that, it helps the team so much," Watson said. "I think we're all proud of him. We want to see that continue."

Stromer waited years for his first taste of the NCAA Tournament, citing Kris Jenkins' winning buzzer-beater to help Villanova beat North Carolina in the 2016 championship game as "the moment where I was like, 'This is what I want to feel.' "

Once Stromer got there, the moment didn't look too big.

The former four-star recruit was the first player to reach double figures on Thursday and finished with 10 points — all in the first half — to go with three assists and one blocked shot. Stromer played 30 minutes, the most he's played since a Feb. 7 home blowout of Portland.

"He's like a spark plug off the bench for us when he plays like that with confidence," point guard Ryan Nembhard said. "He's huge for us. He was huge for us tonight. Look forward to him keep playing well. That's just what he does."

Gregg likens Stromer's role this year to the one he filled for the Zags last season.

"He's been making big-time plays for us all year and kind of going unnoticed," Gregg said. "Kind of like the stuff I was doing last year. He's done such a great job adapting to his new role and just thriving in that."

The confidence Stromer has developed in his own game, near the end of his rookie season, is starting to match the confidence Gonzaga teammates and coaches have shown in the freshman for months.

"It's much-needed, man, his minutes, his time and his impact to the game," guard Nolan Hickman said. "It matters, it matters. It just showed today, honestly, what he's able to bring to the table when somebody's not able to be in the game ... he's always able to step up and do what he needs to do and that's what we're expecting from him.

"He's got the confidence to do it."

Gregg shrugs off ankle ailment

It was a concerning image for Gonzaga fans — perhaps the only one from an overwhelmingly positive night in Salt Lake City.

Sitting on the bench late in the second half, Gregg replaced his right shoe with an ice pack and athletic tape while his Gonzaga teammates put the finishing touches on a blowout victory over McNeese State.

Gregg was able to walk back to GU's locker room as the Bulldogs exited the court at the Delta Center, but not without a slight limp.

The junior didn't give a formal diagnosis, but confirmed he hurt his ankle in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game against Saint Mary's.

Gregg still played 19 minutes in Thursday's NCAA Tournament opened and described the ice pack and athletic tape as "preventative maintenance."

"It's been bothering him kind of all week," Few said. "We've been trying to give him time off and monitor it as best we can. It kind of gets aggravated every time we play a game or have a real hard practice."

Gregg didn't seem to have any concerns about missing Saturday's NCAA Tournament game, suggesting "everybody's got bumps and bruises."

The Clackamas, Oregon, native overcame early foul trouble to score 12 points and grab five rebounds in Thursday's victory.