Gonzaga coach Mark Few wasn’t sure how the No. 2 Bulldogs would play against No. 4 Kentucky after losing at No. 11 Texas earlier in the week.
He needn’t have worried.
Rasir Bolton scored 24 points, Drew Timme added 22, and Gonzaga beat cold-shooting Kentucky 88-72 on Sunday night in the off-campus Spokane Arena.
Julian Strawther had 20 points and 14 rebounds for Gonzaga, which was coming off its biggest margin of defeat since 2014 in Wednesday’s 93-74 loss to the Longhorns.
“You were hoping that’s how your team responds after a disappointing loss,” Few said. “It was really, really big.”
Anton Watson had 10 points and 10 rebounds and spent the evening guarding reigning player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, who was in foul trouble much of the game.
“Anton was phenomenal tonight,” Few said. “He was spectacular.”
Tshiebwe still finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds for Kentucky (3-2), which shot just 39% in the game compared to 56% for Gonzaga.
Gonzaga (3-1) dominated the first half. The Bulldogs led 25-15 with less than eight minutes left in the first, holding the Wildcats to 4-of-22 shooting. But Gonzaga committed eight turnovers to help keep Kentucky in the game.
Gonzaga went on a 14-3 run to expand its cushion to 41-25 by halftime. Tshiebwe had 14 points in the first half to lead all scorers.
“I was not stepping up like I should,” Tshiebwe said. “I’ve got to get better.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari pointed to his team’s 25% shooting in the first half as a key.
“We can’t miss every open shot,” Calipari said. “In the first half it was so embarrassing we couldn’t run a play.”
Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin said the team “got ourselves into a hole we couldn’t get out of.” But the Wildcats found their shooting touch in the second half, going on a 14-6 run to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 47-39. Kentucky’s Cason Wallace and Antonio Reeves then hit consecutive 3-pointers.
But Tshiebwe promptly picked up his fourth foul and sat down with about 13 minutes left in the game. Timme went off for seven points and Gonzaga led 65-55 by the time Tshiebwe returned to the lineup.
Bolton hit four free throws and a 3-pointer to lift Gonzaga to an 84-69 lead with 1:20 left to ice the game.
Calipari refused to play this game at Gonzaga’s home venue, the intimate McCarthey Athletic Center. The Spokane Arena has twice the capacity at about 12,000 seats and was packed. Gonzaga is 12-6 all-time at the arena, last playing there in 2014.
The game drew 12,333 fans, the largest crowd ever for any event in the history of the Spokane Arena.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Gonzaga sank 19 of 21 free throws … Kentucky missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts in the first half, but made six of 15 in the second.
Kentucky: The Wildcats lost 86-77 to Michigan State in double overtime on Tuesday and beat South Carolina State 106-63 on Thursday, making Sunday their third game in six days.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs avoided consecutive losses for the first time since 2018. They have been ranked in the Top 5 for 52 consecutive polls.
Kentucky: Hosts North Florida on Wednesday.
Gonzaga: Plays Portland State at the PK85 Invitational in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday.
— Nicholas K. Geranios, The Associated Press