Gonzaga held off a furious rally from No. 17 Kentucky on Saturday for a critical 89-85 victory that brought UK its first-ever three-game losing streak inside Rupp Arena. It marked the first Quad 1 win of the season for the Zags, who are on the bubble while attempting to reach their 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
The last time the Wildcats (16-7) lost three straight home games was 1966, which was 10 years before Rupp Arena opened. Gonzaga has now won 166 straight games when leading by 10 or more at halftime, but the visitors had to work to keep that streak alive after blowing a 12-point lead in the second half.
Reed Sheppard keyed Kentucky’s rally by scoring all 21 of his points in the second half. His free throws with 12:30 remaining capped a 25-7 run and put the Wildcats ahead 57-51. The Zags (18-6) regained their footing from there with a heavy dose of Graham Ike. Gonzaga’s big man led all scorers with 23 points as UK again struggled to make defensive stops in critical moments.
Anton Watson added a couple of clutch buckets in the final 1:31 to help the Zags maintain the lead. The Wildcats had a chance to tie the game coming out of a timeout with 13 seconds left, but Gonzaga’s Ben Gregg intercepted Sheppard’s lob pass toward the rim.
The Wildcats entered as the highest-scoring team in college basketball since Gonzaga averaged 91 per game in the 2020-21 season. Buckets are no problem for this bunch, and UK’s second half run was marked by stretches of electric basketball. But in the end, it was UK’s fourth loss in its last six games. Gonzaga has won two straight since losing at home to Saint Mary’s last Saturday.
Bracketology: Zags still alive
Gonzaga has never missed an NCAA Tournament under 25th-year coach Mark Few, and only Kansas (33) and Michigan State (25) have been to more consecutive tournaments than the Zags. But even after picking up their first Quad 1 win of the season, the Bulldogs still have work to do.
“Gonzaga is still alive for a potential at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament, but barely,” CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm said after the game. “The Bulldogs also likely need to win at Saint Mary’s to give them two Quad 1 wins and then see what happens in the conference tournament, but as always, it depends on what other teams do.”
Kentucky entered as a projected No. 5 seed in Palm’s Bracketology and is still safely in the projected field. But the Wildcats are now just 4-5 since starting the season 12-2. A young team appears to be hitting the wall against the veteran-laden opposition found throughout college basketball.
Defense remains an issue
Gonzaga made 9 of its final 13 attempts from the field over the game’s final nine minutes. It was a scene that is becoming too familiar for UK fans as the Wildcats remain mired in a concerning defensive slump. While the absence of starting center Tre Mitchell for a second consecutive game due to a back injury didn’t help, it’s no excuse for another defensive dud.
Even without Mitchell, the Wildcats still deployed three different towering big men in Ugonna Onyenso, Aaron Bradshaw and Zvonimir Ivišić. The Wildcats simply struggled with perimeter 1-on-1 defense yet again. Gonzaga made only 4 of 18 attempts from 3-point range, but the Zags were still able to get clean 2-point looks by beating UK defenders off the dribble. Ryan Nembhard orchestrated the attack with nine assists for Gonzaga as the Bulldogs amassed a 50-40 edge in paint points.
Gonzaga attempted just four 3-pointers in the second half, choosing instead to take the fight right at the Wildcats. It worked. Starting guards Nolan Hickman and Ryan Nembhard made just 1 of 7 attempts from the floor after halftime while Ike, Watson and Huff used their collective size and muscle. They combined for 34 points after the break and appeared physically stronger than their younger opposition.
Kentucky has four more home games remaining and needs to win three of them in order to avoid matching a school record for most home losses in a season at six. Those games are against Ole Miss (Tuesday), Alabama (Feb. 24), Arkansas (March 2) and Vanderbilt (March 6). The Alabama game figures to be a challenge, but the Wildcats should be relatively heavy favorites in the other three. But between a home loss to UNC Wilmington on Dec. 2 and its current three-game slide at Rupp, UK has shown it can’t be trusted to defend its home floor.