No. 1 Zags, with Andrew Nembhard at controls, can clinch vs. Santa Clara
For Andrew Nembhard, it's an embarrassment of riches.
On any given possession, the Gonzaga point guard can throw the ball down low to Drew Timme, the reigning Karl Malone Award winner as the nation's top power forward (and a finalist this season for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the top center) or 7-foot freshman phenom Chet Holmgren, a Malone finalist this year.
If the defense is packed into the lane, there's Julian Strawther on the wing, averaging 12.6 points, or backcourt mate Rasir Bolton, who -- like Nembhard -- is averaging 10.5.
It's no wonder the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (22-2, 11-0 WCC) are the nation's top scoring team with 89.9 points a game entering Saturday's West Coast Conference matchup with Santa Clara in Spokane, Wash. Gonzaga can clinch its 10th consecutive regular-season WCC championship with a victory.
Nembhard's shot wasn't falling Wednesday -- he made just 1 of 8 from the field while scoring just 4 points -- in Gonzaga's 86-66 victory at Pepperdine. So, he dished out a career-high 14 assists while handling a tough defensive assignment against the Waves' Houston Mallette, who finished with 25 points.
"That's what he does, man," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "He's an unbelievable passer, just a wizard in the ball screens. So we trust him, he'll make the right read and he was making all the different reads and that's kind of who he is."
The 14 assists matched the second-most in Zags history -- Joel Ayayi last season -- and was two shy of the record set by Blake Stepp in 2002.
Nembhard, whose previous high of 13 assists came against Long Beach State in 2019 while he was still at Florida, said he just tries to stay with the basics.
"I think I was just trying to keep it simple of reading the defense, understanding what their coverages were and then just executing the game plan," Nembhard said. "I think I did that at a pretty high level. ... They were kind of pressuring me with two guys. Just reading the defense and keeping it simple."
That worked, as Timme scored 19 points and Holmgren added 18 points with 17 rebounds as the Zags won their 15th consecutive game and are a victory away from their 21st conference regular-season championship in Few's 23 seasons.
Few pointed out that Nembhard's command of the game was not unusual for him.
"UCLA and some other huge games," said Few, referring to Nembhard's 24 points and six assists in an 83-63 victory over the then-No. 2 Bruins on Nov. 23 in Las Vegas. He also had 22 points and 12 assists against BYU on in a 90-57 rout on Feb. 5.
"Obviously, you can see how valuable he is to us. Then he was chasing Mallette around who's a heckuva player and has a ton of freedom and that's a really, really hard guard."
Santa Clara (18-9, 8-4) is in third place in the conference after Thursday's 84-80 victory at Loyola Marymount.
PJ Pipes had a team-high 19 points for the Broncos, Josip Vrankic added 18 and Keshawn Justice scored 16.
"Our guys kept their poise and composure and made some big free throws and got some stops at the end," Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek said, calling it, "A great road victory in a very difficult WCC."
The Broncos will need an even greater effort Saturday as they have dropped 23 consecutive games against Gonzaga.
In the previous meeting between the schools on Jan. 15 in Santa Clara, the Zags prevailed 115-83 behind Timme's 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting.
"It's obviously a short turnaround to get up to Spokane," Sendek said after Thursday's game in Los Angeles. "We'll regroup and catch our breath."
--Field Level Media
Updated February 18, 2022