March 2, 2012 • Basketball

Basketball: How Mark Few puts games out of reach

Eight games into the West Coast Conference season (through Jan. 31, 2012), the Gonzaga Bulldogs have struggled in the first half of games before putting away opponents in the second half. Gonzaga held a 274-231 scoring advantage during the first half of conference games, but that balloons to 320-251 in the second half.

Two games in late January played directly into this pattern as Gonzaga struggled early against teams it should beat. On Jan. 21, the Zags hosted the University of San Diego in Spokane but slipped out of the gate against the 7-11 Toreros and only held a 32-28 lead at the half.

Five days later, in Portland, Oregon, Gonzaga trailed by 4 points against a Pilots team that hadn’t beaten the Zags since 2003 (17 straight losses).

Here is how head coach Mark Few’s team put together strong second-half runs in both games to close out these opponents and remain entrenched in second place in the WCC.

Vs. San Diego

San Diego scores less than a minute into the second half to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 32-30. With a chance to stun the crowd in Spokane, the Toreros fire a 3-pointer to attempt to take the lead as the game clock ticks below 19 minutes. The shot rims out and sets the stage for the Zags to go on a game-changing run.

After the missed 3-pointer, Gonzaga comes down the court and immediately feeds the ball into the post to 6-foot-7 forward, and the team leader in scoring (13.7 points per game), Elias Harris. Harris makes a quick move to the hoop, scores the bucket and is fouled. He misses the free throw, but 7-foot center Robert Sacre doesn’t give up on the play. He muscles his way for the offensive rebound, scores on a putback and is fouled. He knocks down his free throw, culminating a 5-point trip down the court for Gonzaga and pushing the lead to 37-30.

The Zags man defense forces San Diego’s guards to scramble a bit on the perimeter on the next possession. Finally, one of the guards attempts to fire up a rushed shot as he dribbles into the lane. Harris grabs the rebound and pushes the ball up the court.

San Diego

DIAGRAM 1: Take it yourself. Few allows his players a lot of freedom within the offense, and it helps when you have a post player with the ability to dribble.

Harris grabs the San Diego miss and starts dribbling. When he enters the front court, he sees the Toreros’ defense out of position, especially the defender who should be guarding Harris, who has his head turned away from the ball.

Harris dribbles hard on the left side of the lane and receives a solid screen from the bruising Sacre. The screen allows Harris to go to the hoop uncontested. He scores the easy layup and now the lead is 39-30 with 17:51 remaining in the game. San Diego calls a timeout.

Following the timeout, San Diego has trouble entering the ball from the point to the wing. Eventually, Gonzaga forces the Toreros into a 35-second violation and regains control of the ball.

DIAGRAM 2: Entry to corner (A). On the following possession, Gonzaga’s point guard receives a ball screen to get free while dribbling toward Harris in the right corner. The screener rolls to the hoop and the point guard throws a pass to the corner.

DIAGRAM 3: Entry to corner (B). Harris has the ball in the corner and shows, once again, why having a talented forward makes your offense run smoothly.

Harris offers a pump, shakes the defender and dribbles hard to the goal. The screener’s defender is late to provide help, as is the defender on the wing. Harris scores another easy layup.

Following a missed 17-footer by San Diego, Harris grabs another rebound, outlets the ball and Gonzaga runs this play in the half-court.

DIAGRAM 4: Pass and ball screen. It’s a simple play but run perfectly.

The guard with the ball passes to Harris on the wing. The guard immediately sets a ball screen, and Harris dribbles hard into the lane. Sacre is in the right-side post. Harris misses the layup (as the help defense, this time from the corner, arrives late) but Sacre grabs the rebound. Sacre goes up strong, is fouled and converts both free throws.

With 15:13 remaining in the contest and just three minutes removed from clinging to a 2-point lead, Gonzaga is up 43-30 and never looks back en route to a 77-60 victory.

Vs. Portland

Winning conference games on the road is not an easy task. Despite playing the 5-15 Portland Pilots on Jan. 26, Gonzaga finds itself down by 4 points coming out of halftime in Portland. Gonzaga gained and held the lead throughout the second half but didn’t put away Portland until a 9-point surge from the 5:01 mark down to 2:45 remaining in the contest. Here is how the Zags closed the door on the Pilots’ upset bid.

Following a Portland 3-pointer to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 55-52 with 5:26 left to play, Few calls a timeout to regroup his team and possibly quiet the raucous Chiles Center.

Out of the timeout, Gonzaga runs the following play.

DIAGRAM 1: Ball screen and roll (A). Gonzaga’s point guard receives a high ball screen, dribbles to the right and passes the ball back to the screener at the top of the set.

DIAGRAM 2: Ball Screen And Roll (B). The screener then fires a pass to the wing. It’s at this point the post player moves from the right side of the lane to the ball side.

The post then comes high to set a ball screen. The wing uses the screen to dribble toward the lane. Two defenders converge on the ball handler, who makes a pass to the post player now rolling to the hoop. The easy layup gives Gonzaga a 57-52 lead.

Portland then comes back down the court and forces a 3-pointer. Gonzaga catches the Pilots out of position and pushes the ball up the court.

DIAGRAM 3: Beating the defense down the floor. The point passes to the wing, who now has the entire left side of the court available. As the defense retreats, the final line of defense is screened by Sacre in the lane. The wing dribbles to the rim and scores easily.

As inexperienced teams do, Portland once again forces a long 3-pointer, which results in a miss. Gonzaga now has the ball in the front court but the 7-footer, Sacre, is the ball handler at the top of the set.

DIAGRAM 4: Interior passing (A). Sacre passes to the wing and sets a ball screen. The wing dribbles toward the top of the set.

Sacre rolls away from the screen and draws the defense. Harris is located at the right elbow and moves closer toward the block.

DIAGRAM 5: Interior passing (B). Harris has his defender sealed, so the ball handler passes to Harris. The defense, which at first seems concerned with Sacre as the initial screener, loses track of him. Sacre cuts to the weak-side area of the lane.

Harris receives the pass from the wing and immediately fires a pass to Sacre. Sacre scores, is fouled and converts the free throw. Gonzaga leads 62-52 with 3:39 left to play.

Gonzaga commits a pair of blocking fouls on Portland’s next possession. Despite there only being 3 minutes left in the contest, Gonzaga’s defense played smartly in the second half, so the Pilots are not yet in the bonus. Taking the ball out of bounds from the baseline, the Zags force Portland into throwing an errant pass, which results is one of the Pilots catching the ball in the front court but having his momentum taking him into the backcourt.

Gonzaga wastes no time in putting this game away and runs this play to end the Pilots’ chances.

DIAGRAM 6: Pick and roll. Once again, Gonzaga runs a basic pick-and-roll to perfection. The ball is passed from the left wing to the right wing, then to another offensive player popping out beyond the 3-point line. Sacre moves from the middle of the lane out to set a ball screen.

The player who passed to the wing clears through the lane to create space. The ball handler uses Sacre’s screen, draws two defenders, then passes to Sacre rolling to the hoop. The defensive help is late and fouls Sacre. He knocks down both free throws and Gonzaga leads 64-52 with 2:45 left. The Zags eventually win the game 74-62.

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