While sidelined all of last season with a broken leg, Gonzaga’s Bryant Crawford took note of the hostile environment that came with every road contest in Washington Catholic Athletic Conference play. But it wasn’t until the sophomore stepped to the line for two critical fourth-quarter free throws during Monday’s matchup at Paul VI that Crawford truly realized what he was up against.
“It was a big crowd last year but it’s nothing like being on the floor in that atmosphere,” Crawford said. “I got a little nervous there because I wasn’t expecting it to be so loud. But we still knew we had to pull through.”
Shaking off the anxiety while filling the void left by first-team All-Met Kris Jenkins’s suspension for an ejection in the prior contest, Crawford tallied 17 points and several critical assists to help the Eagles hold off Paul VI, 86-79 in Fairfax.
Along with being down a man, Gonzaga (2-0) also lacked the size to pound with Panthers big men Marcus Derrickson and Quadree Smith, and it showed early on. In the game’s opening eight minutes, the duo combined for seven points and nine rebounds to help Paul VI (0-1) build a 26-23 lead.
But while the Panthers made their mark in the paint, Gonzaga benefited on the perimeter. After a Crawford block thwarted a Paul VI fast break, Charles Glover and Matt Jackson drained consecutive three-pointers to give Gonzaga a 38-33 halftime lead. Gonzaga finished with eight three-pointers on the night.
Smith put together a big third quarter to keep the Panthers close, scoring 10 of his team-high 17 points, but foul trouble sidelined him for key stretches in the fourth. Crawford took advantage of the subsequent openings in the paint, using dribble penetration to draw in the defense before finding Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof for easy baskets that helped stretch the lead to 17 with three minutes remaining.
Yet just when it seemed the Eagles would cruise to an easy victory, Paul VI stormed back. Jamall Robinson (17 points) punctuated a 14-0 run with a steal and three-pointer to shave the deficit to 78-77 with just 20 seconds on the clock.
“Once we got that lead, I thought our guys relaxed a little bit,” Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner said. “But we just kept telling them to stay composed, make your free throws and we can get out of here with a win.”
The Eagles took heed to their coach’s words, making all eight of their free throws in the final seconds to hold off Paul VI in the first of what is primed to be another wild season in the WCAC.
“I told our guys, this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” Turner said. “With Kris out, this was an opportunity for his brothers to step up and show that we’re not a one-trick pony like some people think we are. This was a confidence builder for all of us.”