Relentless defense gave Jaguars a fighting chance

SALT LAKE CITY — Only one word can describe the defensive pressure Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team felt from Southern over the course of 40 minutes on Thursday afternoon.

Relentless.

The Jaguars attacked everywhere. Around the basket. On the perimeter. They made the Bulldogs work hard to turn any possession into something positive. It didn’t prevent a 64-58 loss to the Zags, but it sure gave the nation’s No. 1 team more than a few uncomfortable moments.

“They don’t give you a lot of easy opportunities, and they’re very patient on offense,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “When they start shooting the ball like they did at multiple spots that they haven’t necessarily shown all year, then the crowd gets going and everyone wants to see that first 1-16 loss.”

Southern did an effective job throughout the first half of containing Gonzaga’s post players. Kelly Olynyk managed just a pair of baskets before halftime. Olynyk and Elias Harris combined to shoot just 4-of-13 from the field in the first 20 minutes.

It forced Olynyk to make adjustments to his offensive game coming out of the locker room.

“In the second half, I really just had to focus on finishing plays,” Olynyk, a 7-footer, said. “We got to where we wanted to get. We just didn’t deliver down low. We didn’t finish any baskets.”

Limiting opportunities for Olynyk and Harris to make game-changing plays was a huge point of emphasis for the Jaguars.

They forced the Bulldogs out to the perimeter, where they were weaker on offense, in an effort to mitigate any damage Gonzaga could do around the basket.

“We work hard defensively,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “We always own our defense and rent our offense. We knew how those two guys were going to be tough for us, so we spent a lot of film time and workouts trying to get some weak-side help.

“We felt like we had to guard them as a team.”

Southern’s defensive effort showed in different categories. The Jaguars limited the Zags to 23-of-55 shooting for the game (41.8 percent). They also had eight blocked shots compared to zero for the Zags.

Turnovers were also a difference-maker.

Southern forced Gonzaga to turn over the ball 10 times and scored 14 points off those miscues.

The Jaguars played with high energy and, as they continued to hang around, the mostly pro-Gonzaga crowd at Energy Solutions Arena suddenly shifted in their favor.

“Coach Banks is always talking to us about how we’ve got to play above the rim,” junior center Javan Mitchell said. “We know a lot of intensity wins the game, so we had to come in and play hard and do what we can to get the win.”

Notes

No. 16 seeds are now 0-114 in NCAA history against No. 1 seeds. Southern is just the second No. 16 seed to lose by a single-digit margin since 1997. … Southern finished with 23 wins, making a six-win improvement from Banks’ debut season. The Jaguars are just two years from a 4-26 season. … Malcolm Miller started the game 2-of-3, but missed eight of his final nine shots to finish with nine points.