Jan. 28—It was an otherwise meaningless stretch at a point in Thursday's game when Gonzaga fans were either hitting the exits or contemplating when the right time was to do so.
The Bulldogs were leading Loyola Marymount 53-31 when Nolan Hickman entered with 13 minutes, 10 seconds remaining, giving Gonzaga a lineup that included three freshmen — Hickman, Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis — along with junior Anton Watson and senior Andrew Nembhard.
Over a period that lasted more than 6 minutes, the youthful unit led the Zags on a 24-6 run that saw Holmgren, Hickman and Sallis combine for 17 points, seven rebounds, one block and one steal.
In total, GU's freshmen combined to score 39 points on 14 of 17 from the field and 5 of 6 from 3-point range. They also had 15 rebounds and registered three of the team's five best plus/minus totals on Thursday, with Holmgren logging a +34, Sallis a +28 and Hickman a +25.
"I was really proud of our young guys, because Loyola's a physical team," GU coach Mark Few said. "I think the young guys had to feel it first, then they really responded, especially there in the second half."
We touch on the impact of Gonzaga's freshman trio, a bizarre night for the West Coast Conference and the status of injured forward Kaden Perry in Thursday's takeaways.
Holmgren, Hickman and Sallis arrived on GU's campus as ready-made prospects with the skill, athleticism and intangibles that allowed them to thrive at the college level before taking the floor for their first practice, but there was still an integration process that would need to take place before the Bulldogs freshmen could hit their ceiling as first-year players.
Thursday's spurt in the second half was another example, but not the only one over the past few weeks, that integration process has gone smoothly for a trio that will be expected to play a big role in the Zags' postseason success.
"I feel like physically and the speed has definitely started to form its place in my game," Hickman said. "I'm starting to feel more comfortable with how fast everything's going, when to get this read off, when not to. When to make this pass, when not to. I feel like it's starting to work its way into place."
Hickman's managed to reach double figures in three of the team's past six games and he's been one of the team's top 3-point shooters, making 12 of his past 23 attempts .
Holmgren's had the top two scoring performances of his season in consecutive games, combining to score 43 points against USF and LMU. A Twitter account, Stats by STATS, pointed out that Holmgren is the only Division I player over the past 25 years to average at least 14.0 points and 3.0 blocks while shooting 60% from the field and 40% from 3-point range.
"I feel like I've adjusted pretty well," Holmgren said. "Since the first game, it's been kind of settling in and figuring out how I can be most effective within this team and with the players I have around me. A lot of great players, so I try to find ways to help them shine and the team altogether on the court and I feel like myself as well as everybody else, we're really starting to gel together."
Sallis hasn't been quite as impactful as a scorer, but the five-star prospect from Nebraska is routinely one of the team's most active defenders. On Thursday, with most of his teammates retreating to the other end, Sallis scrapped for a loose ball in the backcourt, came up with the steal and found Holmgren, who connected on a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.
"He's starting to play way more assertive. I think he was a little timid at the start of the year and he just wanted to please," Few said of Sallis. "Now I think he's just cutting loose and I think we're starting to see what makes him such a special player."
Wild, wild West (Coast Conference)
The WCC is still in position to gain a record four bids to the NCAA Tournament, but that position may not feel quite as strong as it did a month ago — let alone even a week ago.
Four teams from the conference appeared in Joe Lunardi's recent bracketology projections published Friday morning, with Gonzaga leading the group as a No. 1 seed in the West Region. Lunardi projects BYU as a No. 8 seed in the South Region, Saint Mary's as a No. 10 in BYU's region and USF as a No. 11 seed in the East.
All four teams sit in the top 40 of the NCAA's NET rankings, with Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's all in the top 30, and have managed to avoid what the NET system would consider a bad loss. The Bulldogs, Cougars, Gaels and Dons are 13-5 in Quad 2 games, but 37-0 in Quad 3 games.
Gonzaga is winning conference games by a margin of 28.4 points and hasn't looked vulnerable. BYU, for example, may not be able to afford a 0-4 record against Saint Mary's and USF, but a few losses against those schools — or Gonzaga — won't do much harm to the Cougars' resume.
Instead, it's the conference's bottom six teams that will ultimately have a say in how many WCC teams are called on Selection Sunday. BYU suffered its fourth Quad 2 loss on Thursday, losing 77-76 at Santa Clara while Saint Mary's, on the opposite side of the Bay Area, rallied back from a 23-point first-half deficit to stun San Francisco 72-70.
Santa Clara, which holds the WCC's fifth-best NET ranking, at No. 81, may not be in a position to vie for an NCAA Tournament bid after losing five of seven games in nonconference play while All-WCC big man Josip Vrankic was sidelined. But the Broncos have the top-end talent to beat at least three of the WCC's top four teams on any given night, and have three more regular-season games against such opponents.
After Santa Clara, there's a steep dropoff in the WCC's NET rankings with San Diego, LMU, Portland, Pepperdine and Pacific sitting somewhere between No. 168 and 305. If BYU, SMC or USF were to lose to any of those five, it could spell disaster for their NCAA chances, barring they find a way to beat the second-ranked Zags.
For the first time since reinjuring his back, Kaden Perry suited up for the Zags and went through a full warmup routine, seemingly without any setbacks, prior to Thursday's game against LMU.
Perry, who's played in eight of GU's 18 games this season, is still suffering from back spasms that are connected to the herniated discs that kept him out for a large chunk of his senior year at Battle Ground (Washington) High School.
Though Perry moved around in a light warmup setting, the freshman hasn't been cleared for full contact and isn't particularly close to returning to the court.
"No, he wasn't ready. He's moving and warming up, but he hasn't went live or anything yet," Few said.
Before the injury, Perry was averaging 1.8 points and 2.3 rebounds while playing 6.6 minutes per game .