With the opposition behind him and a win within reach, Gonzaga’s Bryant Crawford rose high before cocking the ball back for a tomahawk jam. As the sophomore landed on the floor at American University’s Bender Arena, the site of Tuesday’s contest between the top-ranked Eagles and No. 5 O’Connell, Crawford formed goggles around his eyes with his fingers.
At that point, with two minutes left and Gonzaga pulling away, it all became clear. Victory, first place in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and a tighter grasp on the area’s top ranking — they all were within sight after Crawford’s dunk punctuated a 66-57 win against O’Connell. With five games left, the victory gave Gonzaga a two-game lead in the WCAC standings; the Knights have lost two straight following an 11-0 start in the conference.
Kris Jenkins again came up big for the Eagles (20-3, 13-0 in WCAC), scoring 28 points while hitting all nine of his free throws on a night that saw Gonzaga go 18 for 21 at the foul line.
“We just wanted to play hard and play smart,” said Jenkins, a Villanova commit. “For me, I just try to stay aggressive because that gets me going, and when I’m at my best, it opens up things for my teammates and gives them confidence.”
Though the bigger college court led to visible fatigue, both teams traded runs during an up-tempo first half. With Gonzaga up seven early in the second quarter, O’Connell freshman Ako Adams came off the bench to provide a spark, scoring five points to give the Knights a 27-25 lead. The Eagles responded just before halftime, though, with an 8-2 run to retake the advantage.
Scrappy play resulted in a handful of fouls, pitting both teams in the bonus just nine minutes into the second half. Gonzaga took advantage, scoring 10 of its 12 points at the line in the third quarter. But Melo Trimble (23 points) kept the Knights (18-5, 11-2) in contention with his usual assortment of runners in the lane off dribble penetration. Junior Etou also warmed up, scoring 12 of his 13 of his points in the second half.
Etou’s effectiveness became more of an issue midway through the fourth period, when Gonzaga’s Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof picked up his fourth foul and was sent to the bench. As a result, Matt Jackson took on the task of guarding Etou and sparked a critical team defensive effort in the final six minutes.
Using transition opportunities created by rebounds and steals, the Eagles went on a 15-5 run that turned a 49-49 contest into another WCAC win for Gonzaga.
“Our bigs did a heck of a job inside defensively and I think that was the key to the win,” Eagles Coach Steve Turner said. “We’ve had a tough stretch here, almost like a playoff run, playing three games in five days and some good competition. So far, we’ve handled it well.”