By Peter Tormey
DENVER – His teammates call Marquise Carter “keys” and the name fit Thursday night as the junior guard, playing in his first NCAA Tournament game, scored 24 points to key No. 11 seed Gonzaga’s 86-71 win over No. 6 seed St. John’s in a second-round game in the Southeast Region. The 25-9 Bulldogs advance to the third round Saturday against No. 3 seed, which beat 14-seed Wofford 74-66 earlier today.
In addition to a half-dozen assists and rebounds, Carter connected on 6 of 10 field goals, including 3 of 5 from the 3-point line, and drained 9 of 11 free-throws to blister St. John’s.
“I just let the game come to me,” Carter said.
Senior guard Steven Gray shot 6 of 11 from the field, including 4 of 7 from the 3-point line, to add 16 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists for Gonzaga while sophomore forward Elias Harris contributed 15 points and 8 rebounds. Gonzaga shot 53.8% from the field, draining 28 of 52 shots, including 60% from 3-point range -- connecting on 9 of 15 -- to run away from the Red Storm (21-12). Gonzaga dominated St. John’s on the boards 43-20, handing St. John’s an early exit from its first Tournament appearance after a 9-year hiatus.
“The most impressive thing of the night I think is Marquise Carter’s first NCAA tournament game,” said Gonzaga Coach. “I mean, to come in and go, you know, 24 (points), 6 rebounds and 6 assists is pretty amazing against a quick, athletic, tough group of St. John's guards.”
Gray attributed Gonzaga’s 3-point prowess to taking shots on their terms.
“We had a lot of concepts that the coaches had put out that if we followed, we were going to get a lot of good looks,” Gray said. “It was just a matter of stepping up and shooting them with confidence. That's what we did tonight.”
Few said the Zags are peaking at the perfect time, when their best is needed.
We're playing the best basketball we played all year,” he said. “I think we had a great learning process this year for our players, our staff, our fans, people who follow the program. This thing is really hard to get to. There's been really, really good teams over the years that have not made it, from the Carolinas, to the Syracuses, to UCLAs that have not been able to make the NCAA tournament. There's nothing guaranteed. It's not a birthright. You have to earn your way.”
Few said the team, which rallied from third place in the West Coast Conference on Feb. 11 to capture the WCC Tournament crown, did what it had to do to in the latter part of the season to put the Zags where they are today.
“When our backs were against the wall, they put their heads down, just plowed along,” Few said. “Step by step, got us back here. Now that we're here, we're playing good and we want to stay here.”
It appeared early as though it could be a tightly contested game as the Red Storm shot 80 percent from the field, making 4 of 5 from the floor, to sprint to a 14-12 lead. But it would be their last as Harris sank a 3-pointer with 15:14 remaining in the first period to give the Zags a 15-14 lead that they did not relinquish. A layup by Carter with 2:59 left before the half extended Gonzaga’s lead to 15 points, at 38-23, its largest first-half margin, and the Zags cruised to 43-32 halftime lead.
The Bulldogs came out shooting in the second half and extended their lead to 17 points, 69-52, with 9:08 left in the game with a layup by junior guard Demetri Goodson, who finished with 6 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. The closest the Red Storm would come to Gonzaga in the second half was within 8 points with 19:32 remaining. A free-throw by sophomore 7-foot forward Kelly Olynyk with 7:22 left to play put Gonzaga ahead by 18 points, 70-52, its largest lead of the game. Center Robert Sacre’s jumper tied the Zags’ largest-lead with 6:29 left, putting the scoreboard at 72-54. After that, the closest St. John’s would come to Gonzaga was within 11 points three times, the latest with 1:16 remaining when Malik Boothe sank a jumper to bring the score to 80-69.
Sacre added 9 points and 9 rebounds for Gonzaga while Olynyk and 7-foot-freshman center Sam Dower added 6 points apiece and combined for 6 rebounds. Freshman guard David Stockton and sophomore guard Mike Hart added 2 points apiece to close out Gonzaga’s scoring.
St. John’s senior guard Dwight Hardy led all scorers with 26 points.
Few said he felt Goodson, who handled the Red Storm’s incessant pressure well, had the best night of his career.
“I thought Meech (Goodson’s nickname) had his best game he's played here. He's had a 20-pointer earlier in the year, but this is far and away his best game,” Few said. “He handled their press really well. He handled their half-court traps, kind of a zone that can be very disruptive. You can never get any rhythm against their zone because they don't really allow any flow. He handled that great. I thought he did a nice job defending Hardy for most of the night. Hardy got a lot of his (points) when Meech wasn't on him. He was as good as he's been all year.”
Asked to looking ahead to BYU, the Zags’ opponent on Saturday, and first-team All-American guard Jimmer Fredette, Carter said he thinks the Zags will match up well with the Cougars.
“I have faith in the coaches to just be able to tell us what we need to do. Throughout the year, we've been really good on listening to our coaches, executing everything we've been going over in film and practice,” Carter said. “Like I said, I have faith in them. Just looking forward to being able to play the next game.”