It was a defining sequence at a point in Thursday’s game when Gonzaga probably felt it needed a final push to put away a stingy San Francisco team.
It was manufactured by two members of what’s been widely considered the top freshman class in Gonzaga history.
It demonstrated why national pundits have been so bullish on the Bulldogs’ depth and diversity of talent well beyond established returners like Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard.
As soon as Nolan Hickman saw a loose ball trickle away from San Francisco’s Julian Rishwain with 11 minutes, 53 seconds to play in the second half, Gonzaga’s freshman guard turned on the jets, tracked down the ball a few feet short of the baseline, reversed direction and sped the other way.
Hickman located Chet Holmgren in the corner, passed to his fellow freshman and watched the 7-foot center blow past one defender, take a giant step toward the rim and go airborne. With three green jerseys guarding the basket, Holmgren managed to get his shot off unimpeded, watching it fall as he drew the fifth and final foul on USF forward Yauhen Massalski. Holmgren finished the three-point play from the free-throw line, pushing Gonzaga’s lead to 53-40.
On a night when Timme couldn’t find his usual groove on offense, Holmgren surfaced with a career-high 22 points, and when Nembhard found himself in foul trouble, Hickman made a variety of contributions – mostly on the defensive end – to help lift No. 1 Gonzaga past San Francisco 78-62 at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“That’s the beauty of this team, I was struggling in the first half, Andrew had foul trouble and there was no dropoff,” Timme said. “Other people just stepped up and Chet was huge for us. He was scoring the ball, defending, blocking shots. He was doing it all and really gave us a boost in the first half when we needed it most.
“That’s just what we go by. Next man up. It’s unfortunate it happened, but we have complete faith in our whole squad that anyone can step up on any given night.”
Holmgren’s 22 points came after the highly touted freshman managed 23 combined points – and on just 13 shots – in games against Santa Clara and BYU. Holmgren only needed 10 attempts to reach his season high on Thursday, making 7 of 10 from the field, 2 of 4 from 3-point range and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line.
“They were switching between man and zone a lot, and I found myself in the high post in the zone most of the time in our offense,” Holmgren said. “They weren’t really stepping up on the high post when me and ‘Ton’ (Anton Watson) got it in there, so we had to make aggressive plays and look to score. That and getting a couple open looks from 3 kind of opened stuff up.”
Hickman scored only two points but made a few notable plays on defense to help the Zags through different spurts where Nembhard was on the bench in both halves.
The guard from Seattle entered the game with one block in 16 games, but Hickman bumped his season total to three when he stepped out to get a hand on Khalil Shabazz’s 3-point shot before stuffing Shabazz’s second-chance shot from the top of the key.
Despite playing only 16 minutes, Hickman finished with a plus/minus of +20. The only player with a better plus/minus was Holmgren, who recorded a +22.
“I think both he and ‘Hunt’ (freshman Hunter Sallis) are both starting to understand the type of intensity you have to bring to function at a high level, especially at this level,” GU coach Mark Few said. “They’re doing a really, really good job understanding it. San Francisco runs some pretty intricate stuff on the offensive end, a lot of cuts, handoffs and ball screens, and those guards have the ultimate freedom.
“I thought for freshmen, first time seeing it, they handled it really, really well. Nolan came in and gave us great minutes. Both he and Hunter are really growing up right before our eyes.”