Gonzaga Bulldogs Show Needed Flashes Of Aggression In Final Conference Road Game


USF Dons coach Jennifer Azzi on her team's 79-59 loss to the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

After the Gonzaga Bulldogs' suffered their worst conference loss in a decade on Thursday in Provo, one might have expected them to come into War Memorial Gym at the University of San Francisco and take out their frustration on the struggling Dons by putting them away early yesterday.

Yet with a little more than four minutes left in the first half at War Memorial Gym, the Dons were only down 23-25 after a driving layup in traffic by guard Rheina Ale.

USF coach Jennifer Azzi's post-game assessment of that first half (video above) was perfectly accurate - it's not like the Dons had managed to scare Gonzaga into letting them stay around.

Despite their narrow advantage, it seemed clear that the visiting Bulldogs would eventually break away because they were simply playing better basketball. While the Dons relied heavily on plays like senior guard Rheina Ale's acrobatic layup in traffic to get the Dons within two points with a little more than four minutes left in the first half, the Bulldogs executed their offense with the type of patience - if not efficiency - necessary to find scoring opportunities in half court sets.

But there's such thing as being too patient, to the point where a team seems to lack a sense of urgency about the game in front of them. And with every game counting down the stretch of WCC play, they turned in a surprisingly uninspired, or at least inconsistent, first half performance against a team that has only won twice at home all year.

Key statistic: Gonzaga dominates rebounding battle 53-27

Despite superior execution, the Bulldogs weren't burning down the nets in San Francisco either. Their 38.2% shooting was well below their normally-efficient standard and they were turning the ball over on more than a quarter of their possessions.

However, Gonzaga did get reasonably good looks at the basket in the first half, even when they settled for jumpers or found themselves scrambling for something late in the shot clock after methodically swinging the ball back and forth. And when they didn't convert in the first half, they were getting 45% of the available offensive rebounds compared to the 10% rate of the Dons and finished the game with about the same differential (46.34%-12.82%).

"That's fantastic," said Gonzaga assistant Jodie Kaczor Berry in a radio interview after the game. "And to see 15 second chance [points], which is a nice stat for our team. We bumped that up and that just requires us to be more aggressive - wanting the contact and going through it."

Of course, while it was a nice stat it wasn't exactly surprising either - the Dons have the lowest rebounding percentage in the conference and are ranked 324th in the nation in rebounding percentage, according to WBBState.com. And that just played out on Saturday.

Just to help put the rebounding battle in perspective, Bulldogs 5'8" transfer guard Taelor Karr's 7 total rebounds matched the total of the Dons' frontcourt combination of 6'3" Bailey Barbour and 6'2" Whitney Daniels. And it was the continued aggression from the Bulldogs' guards in the first half that really stood out even when the unit struggled to get shots to fall.

In addition to Karr's rebounding performance, fellow transfer Haiden Palmer and senior Katelan Redmon led the offensive rebounding attack with two apiece in the first half, each matching USF's team total.

Redmon was also able to use her obvious size and athleticism advantage to score from the wing as well.

Key player: Redmon goes a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line

Put simply, the smaller USF wings just didn't have an answer for stopping the 6'1" Redmon off the drive. She earned 4 free throw attempts in the first half as well as shooting 3-for-6 from the field. She was equally adept at finding herself mid-range jumpers against the Dons defense.

"Reddy's kind of versatile kid for us," said Berry. "Sometimes she's got a kid who's a lot slower and bigger than her so she's quicker and can get to the basket more and that's kind of what we asked. So we're hoping she's going to get to the free throw line like she did tonight."

Although Redmon got another 6 free throw attempts in the second half, she wasn't quite as big a factor offensively as she only attempted two field goals. That's when Kayla Standish stepped up.

Gonzaga statistical MVP: Kayla Standish hits all 7 shots in the second half

After a quiet first half in which she was primarily a facilitator in Gonzaga's offense as a high-low and swing passer, Standish scored 15 of her game-high tying 19 points in the second half while showing off a well-rounded offensive game in the final 20 minutes.

"Kayla did a good job, in particular in the second half - she established herself inside," said Berry. "In the first half she kind of settled for jumpers a little bit more. She's a presence - when she gets the ball on the block, she's good. And we need to do a better job of getting the ball to her and she needs to demand it more. And she did that in the second half."

Standish used her soft touch and decisive footwork to put the ball in the basket on post-ups. When defenders backed off of her, she showed off her shooting range with a couple of jumpers. Even in the first half, her ability to pose a scoring threat from the perimeter and make decisions with the ball helped to stretch the Dons defense to open things up for drives and backdoor cuts. And when the Bulldogs got to the line they converted, shooting 86.4% for the game.

With Standish carrying the scoring load, Redmon continuing to get free throw attempts, and the team controlling the boards as a unit, Gonzaga was able to build a 15-point lead early in the second half that ballooned to as much as 29 before they cruised to a 20-point victory.

For some reason, it just took a while for things to click and start hitting on all cylinders or at optimal capacity.

"We kind of got on the girls a little bit as always," said Berry, when asked what they told the team at halftime. "It's kind of what we do every once in a while - it's our job to tell them when they're not doing the correct thing and trying to help them figure out what the right thing is to do. And I still think we didn't do a great job of capitalizing on some of our 2 on 1's and fast break opportunities like we have in the past. That's something we still have to get better at."

Nevertheless, what stood out after a 70-40 loss to the BYU Cougars in Provo is that the Bulldogs struggled to find a consistent rhythm against a USF team that has only won two home games all season from the get go.

USF statistical MVP: Rheina Ale played at peak efficiency

To USF's credit, senior guard Rheina Ale had one of her better games of the season. Despite an outstanding free throw rate coming into the game (46.53%) and a 37% three point percentage, Ale relies heavily on jumpers and has shot only 29.23% inside the arc this season making her a rather inefficient volume scorer. Yet USF stayed in the game against Gonzaga in no small part because Ale was a much more selective shooter than normal as she went 5-for-10 from the field. As often as USF turned the ball over, minimizing empty possessions from their best player was significant.

That aside, this was still a USF team that couldn't stop the Bulldogs on the boards, shot under 40% for the game, and struggled to initiate their offense until late in the shot clock against any form of full court pressure. This was a USF team that squandered arguably their best chance to string together some late-season momentum last week in home losses to Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara, which have three wins apiece in conference play and each managed to mount blowout-type leads against USF despite closer final scores.

What particularly kept USF in this game was the Gonzaga turnovers - in some cases unforced - that bailed out a defense has consistently struggled to stop teams that execute against them. And while getting a big road win is a good thing, Gonzaga's coaches have to be left wanting more from their squad even after rebounding from a bad loss.

"We're never really satisfied as coaches - we're always going to find the negative," said Berry, putting her commentary in perspective. "But we did do a lot better."

Finding a sense of urgency

The Bulldogs certainly used a team effort to beat the Dons for the 13th consecutive time and remain a half game ahead of BYU atop the West Coast Conference standings, but everyone on the court still seems to be waiting for someone else to give them that spark that they've gotten from their stars in the past.

Although the Bulldogs did eventually pull away in the second half, something that really stood out as the Dons hung around late in the first half was a lot of the poor play that plagued the Bulldogs in Provo: poor decision-making by guards, bad turnovers, and rotating a moment slow defensively only helped USF. It took a little halftime prodding from coaches to get the team to step up the defensive intensity, be a little more decisive with the ball, and maximize their leading scorer in Standish.

In summarizing that and a lackluster performance against BYU, Gonzaga seems to be lacking the hunger to win that they've shown in the past after losing the best players in program history in consecutive years (Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson in 2010 and WNBA lottery pick Courtney Vandersloot in 2011). A common theme underlying Berry's post-game comments after the win at USF was that something is missing this year, whether it be aggression, physicality, or demanding the ball in position to score. All of those things were noticeably lacking Thursday against a BYU team that is strikingly similar to Gonzaga in many respects.

While the Bulldogs had a similar overall record at this point last year - albeit no blemishes in conference last season - it seems like everyone from the play-by-play guy to the coaching staff knows that they need to find something within themselves in order to make another tournament run. That sense of urgency doesn't have to come from one player or even a team's best player, but they're to the point in the season where coaches having to cajole players into bringing it could result in more disastrous losses.

Notes:

  • Kayla Standish had her third straight double-double and 7th overall.
  • At the 3:55 mark, USF fans were told over the PA system that senior Rheina Ale had become the career leader in minutes, surpassing Jamie Shadian's (1997) 3639 career minutes.
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