Suggs leads top-ranked Gonzaga by No. 3 Iowa

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Top-ranked Gonzaga showed no signs of rust Saturday in dispatching No. 3 Iowa 99-88 behind yet another star performance from freshman guard Jalen Suggs.

The Bulldogs hadn’t played a game since Dec. 2 against West Virginia, due to COVID-19 cancellations and protocols. They didn’t return to practice until earlier this week.

“I have incredibly courageous and competitive guys that just love to play and they love to hoop together,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That was the whole key. It was not easy. We were gassed, especially in that second half. We were under all kinds of foul pressure and adversity based on that. It just shows the type of competitors they are, the type of character they have.

“If you saw practice the first day back from this COVID layoff, the staff needed to wear catcher’s masks or something, the balls were flying all over the place, just to be safe … I’m proud of just how they competed because I wasn’t sure how we would handle coming back from it.”

A 13-0 run midway through the first half turned a one-point lead into a 12-point advantage and Iowa was never truly in reach the rest of the way. Suggs was terrific once again, finishing with 27 points, seven rebounds and four assists, while making seven 3-pointers.

Suggs was the catalyst for the Bulldogs at both ends of the floor, racking up three steals and adding a highlight-reel block in transition in the first half. He appeared fully healthy after being forced to leave the West Virginia game temporarily because of a leg injury.

“Coming into this weekend, I really felt like my jump shot improved and I felt really comfortable with it,” Suggs said. “This game, for me particularly, was a really good learning experience. I had a couple talks with Coach, just on some things, just about slowing down, keeping it simple, letting the game come to me.”

Suggs has been one of the best freshmen in the country this season, and is starting to garner buzz as a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA draft — and perhaps even in the No. 1 pick conversation. But he made it clear after the game he’s not thinking about the next level right now.

“It’s great to hear, but I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on the here and the now,” Suggs said. “I think [my teammates] along with the coaching staff have done a great job of keeping me grounded and helping me just keep the outside noise out, and continue to work every day. That’s what I continue to do, and whatever happens in the future happens. But for now, I’m locked in with my guys here.”

Gonzaga entered the game shooting just 29.1% from 3-point range, but the Bulldogs buried 10 first-half 3-pointers and finished the game making 13-for-26 from behind the arc. That’s their most prolific 3-point shooting effort since going 13-for-19 against Southern Miss in November of last season.

In addition to Suggs, Gonzaga had four other players in double figures — including junior guard Joel Ayayi, who finished four assists shy of a triple-double with 11 points, 18 rebounds and six assists. The Bulldogs consistently made plays in transition, grabbing rebounds and pushing the ball up the floor against an unsettled Iowa defense. The fast-break points combined with the 3-point barrage in the first half was something the Hawkeyes — who have struggled defensively the past few seasons — couldn’t stop.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons, so you gotta try to stop all of it. It starts with transition and then ball-screen defense and then rebounding,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “In the first half, we didn’t do a good job in transition, credit them. We had one stretch where nothing was falling … to their credit, they pushed it and scored. We needed to get back and get a stop.

“You’re playing a team that’s really talented, who’ve got a great coach. You’re playing a team that has an expectation of winning. So they’re not typically a mistake team … This team challenges you in a lot of ways. They play fast, they push the ball. They execute really well with their half-court offense, and they rebound, and they have depth. And they’ve got some veteran guys coming off the bench.”

Iowa big man Luka Garza, the Wooden Award favorite, still finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Hawkeyes, shooting 13-for-18 from the field. But unlike against North Carolina, when Garza’s supporting cast stepped up big from the perimeter, Iowa couldn’t get it going from the outside. The Hawkeyes shot just 4-for-22 from 3-point range.

“Overall, they did a pretty good job defensively on us,” junior forward Joe Wieskamp said. “They mixed it up, doubling [Garza], on the dribble, on the catch. They were flying at shooters. There were a couple of times where I think I could’ve shot-faked, tried to get a pull-up or a shot-fake sidestep, things like that.”

Gonzaga hosts Northwestern State on Monday before heading to Texas to face Virginia on Dec. 26, while Iowa heads straight into Big Ten play with a home game against Purdue on Tuesday.

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