Bell Keys Gonzaga Defense In Crackdown On Cougars

By Matt Breach

Special to

            SPOKANE, Wash. - Barely 60 seconds had passed before the always-raucous Gonzaga faithful let out the first substantial roar of the evening. Strangely enough, it came after a missed shot by the home team.

            Now that curiosity is hardly reason to question the basketball IQ of the capacity crowd that packed the McCarthey Athletic Center. It was actually quite astute. It was an audible display of encouragement for Gary Bell Jr., a plea for him to ply his offensive skills more assertively.

            Bell did just that, but not at the expense of what he does best. And the fans, once again showing they know plenty about the game, acknowledged him for his defensive effort as well.

            Bell embodied the aggressive defensive approach of Gonzaga, helping his club stymie BYU and claim an impressive 83-63 triumph Thursday night. The win bumps the 10th-ranked Bulldogs' record to 18-2 overall and 5-0 in the West Coast Conference.

            "I'm ecstatic with how we flew around," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "The energy, the effort, the attention to detail, the toughness - it was great. And for the most part, we kept it up all night."

            It was arguably the Bulldogs' best defensive effort to date. They held the high-flying Cougars to 21 first-half points, the second-lowest total allowed by the Zags in a half this season. Even with a second-half surge, BYU still finished the game 15 points below its season average. 

            "Guys individually made great efforts on the defensive end," GU junior Kelly Olynyk said. "But it was also a lot of help-side defense and making great decisions."

            Bell, a versatile sophomore guard, seemed to make a conscious decision to be assertive on offense, where he has been nearly nonexistent recently. Prior to Thursday, he had taken just eight shots in the past three games, for six points. That included the contest against Butler, where he attempted just one shot and went scoreless for the first time in his brief Gonzaga career.

            "I know the coaches wanted me to be more aggressive," Bell said. "So I just took my open shots and played within the offense."

            Bell didn't make very many of those shots against BYU, but at least he took them. He was 2-for-10 from the field and connected on just one of his six 3-point tries.

            Bell will certainly be one of the keys to Gonzaga fulfilling growing national expectations and making a deep run in March. But how can that happen with him in such an offensive funk? Well, continuing to play defense with such ferocity would be a good start. And that never seems to be a problem for Bell.

            Bell is always tasked with defending the opposition's best perimeter player. That was no different Thursday night. His assignment: BYU standout Tyler Haws, who averages nearly 22 points per game and had scored at least 20 in seven consecutive outings.

            Haws finished with one point. The sophomore guard missed all nine of his shots and was clearly frustrated by Bell's nonstop harassment.

            "It was team defense, it wasn't just me," Bell said. "We made it hard for Haws the whole game and made sure there were no easy looks for him."

            Gonzaga stifled just about every BYU player, not just Haws. The Bulldogs held the Cougars to 35-percent shooting, including a paltry 23-percent clip from behind the arc. It was certainly an inspired defensive performance that, as is usually the case, begins with Bell.

            For now, the Bulldogs are blessed with enough capable scorers they don't need Bell to be an offensive force. Not that they wouldn't mind if he rediscovered his touch, and sooner rather than later.

            But regardless of how he is shooting, or if he is shooting at all, Bell always leaves his mark on defense. Just ask Haws and the rest of the BYU Cougars.



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