'It came up big.' Gonzaga's superb rim protection a key to NCAA opening-round win against Grand Canyon

Mar. 17—DENVER — Gonzaga didn't enter this year's NCAA Tournament with a defensive eraser of Chet Holmgren's caliber — or anything close to it, for that matter — but the Bulldogs still got all the rim protection they needed and a little more than that in an opening-round win over Grand Canyon.

Holmgren came into last year's tournament with 104 blocks and sights on Brandon Clarke's single-season blocked shots record, which he tied with his 117th rejection in a Sweet 16 loss to Arkansas.

To put the feat into perspective, Gonzaga's roster came into the 2023 tournament with 110 blocks — just six more than the second overall NBA draft pick had by himself a year ago.

But the numbers from Gonzaga's NCAA opener in 2022, a 93-72 win over Georgia State, look relatively similar to those from the Bulldogs' 82-70 victory over Grand Canyon on Friday at Ball Arena in Denver.

The Bulldogs had nine blocks against Georgia State — seven coming from their towering freshman center — and eight, a season high for the 2022-23 team, against the Antelopes approximately one year later.

"Yeah, it's one of those areas that has gotten better as we've improved here in February and into March," GU coach Mark Few said. "We're rotating around better and these guys are making plays. I think they were a little tentative earlier in the year and now we're rotating over."

Gonzaga had six of its eight blocks in the first half, relying on rim protection at a point in the game when the score was still in the balance. The Bulldogs blocked seven shots on two occasions this season, against Michigan State in a defensive standoff on the USS Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier and on March 7 against Saint Mary's in the WCC Tournament title game.

"We're really good at flying around and helping each other out more than we were at the beginning of the year," senior forward Drew Timme said. "We've kind of just learned, sometimes we either overhelp too soon or we don't help at all and I think just us figuring out that balance, knowing defensively when we need help versus when we don't — we might get beat at the rim, but we can make it up — has helped us a lot."

Timme's three blocks were a season high, Julian Strawther matched a career high with two blocks, Ben Gregg added two more and Anton Watson had one.

"Our focus was just being in rotation and being in help, because we knew they were trying to get it to the big and that was basically the most open guy the whole game," Watson said.

"Just rim protecting, it was important this game and it came up big."

For the fourth time this season, the Zags got at least 28 points out of Strawther, but his efforts on the defensive end drew equal praise from coaches and teammates.

"I have been on this guy (Strawther)," Few said. "He's a terrific athlete, and when he plays like it, it's something."

Strawther elevated to swipe the ball away from Ray Harrison as GCU's leading scorer was flying to the rim for a dunk midway through the first half.

"Well ... he's 6-7 with like a 90-inch vertical," Timme said. "If I had half that, I bet I'd be a better rim protector. It's great to have a guy like that who's willing to. I mean, he met three people at the rim."

Timme, who's challenged a wide variety of guards and bigs at the rim through his four years at Gonzaga — unsuccessfully on many occasions — said it takes courage to leave the ground as a defender when an opponent attacks the rim, looking to dunk.

"Look, you're going to get dunked on when you go challenge people at the rim every time," he said. "I've been dunked on, everyone's been dunked on. To go knowing you can get dunked on and put on a social media clip, I think that's just a testament to Julian's and our team's character."

After missing consecutive free throws in the first half, Timme responded with one of his three blocked shots, spiking a Rayshon Harrison layup into the second row of seats behind the baseline.

"We don't care," Timme said. "That's just kind of the mindset we have."