LAS VEGAS – Chet Holmgren kicked the ball from the back panel, turned it, and laid it coldly on the ground like a spider-legged leader. He lost a defenseman with a back dribble at the top of the sideline, took two steps and stretched his frame 7-1-1 for a two-handed dunk.
Gonzaga’s gangly freshman has an unmatched skill set. His team may not have a rival at this point either.
Holmgren put on a show with a series of dunks and blocked shots, while Canada’s Andrew Nembhard led the way with 24 points as first Gonzaga outscored UCLA No.2 83-63 on Tuesday night to win the ‘Empire Classic.
“It wasn’t a shock to any of us,” said Gonzaga forward Drew Timme. “This is what we expect of him and what he expects of himself. It’s just Chet. It is one of a kind.
The Zags (6-0) played like the Vegas headliners, showing there is a big gap between the current No.1 and No.2 with a dazzling display at both ends. Gonzaga Shell shocked UCLA (5-1) with a huge early blitz and has never stopped beating his second team in the top 5 this season.
Holmgren has at times stolen the show as a soloist, refusing hits, diving for dunks and impressing crowds with his agility. He finished with 15 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots.
Nembhard, who also had five rebounds and six assists, was the best player on the pitch, according to UCLA coach Mick Cronin.
MVP @AndrewNembhard pic.twitter.com/dDNKfkF7UO
– Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) November 24, 2021
Timme was astute as usual, scoring 18 points in a noisy environment that felt a bit like March madness.
“It reminded me of something you would see in a regional final or a regional semi-final,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It was a great atmosphere and it suited the game perfectly, what was at stake and the two teams that were there.”
The six-foot-five Nembhard, from Aurora, Ont., Is in his second year at Gonzaga after being transferred from Florida. He was the sixth man of the year at the West Coast Conference last year.
Nembhard started high school at Vaughan Secondary, the same school Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors attended, before finishing at Montverde Academy in Florida.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 19 points but had to work for everything he got, and preseason All-American Johnny Juzang was capped at 11 points.
UCLA regained some rhythm after a lousy attacking first half but had no chance to stop the Zags, who shot 56 percent.
“We’re not a good defensive team and we’ve been exposed by a great team,” said Cronin.
Bright Strip lights shone on college hoop fixtures all week, with No.4 from Michigan, No.5 Duke, No.12 from Houston, Arizona, Oregon and Wisconsin appearing on the marquee.
The headliner went to the # 1 vs. # 2 first encounter for the Pacific time zone teams.
The Zags and Bruins played an all-time high last April in Indianapolis, an epic Final Four game won by Gonzaga over 3-point batsman Jalen Suggs.
Gonzaga lost Suggs and a few others, but few filled the gaps in the roster with transfers and a talented freshman, titled by Holmgren. The Zags looked just as good, winning their first six games averaging 31.3 points.
UCLA has everyone back, although big man Cody Riley has been out since he injured his knee in the season opener. The Bruins didn’t look so good against Bellarmine on Monday, prompting Cronin to say his team weren’t ready for Gonzaga after the 75-62 win.
He was right.
Gonzaga was at his best offensive, taking out the Bruins with clean cuts and passes. The Zags hit eight of their first nine shots and used a 19-2 streak to take a 29-8 lead. Even after the pace slowed, Gonzaga was still leading 45-25 at halftime.
“We didn’t put up a lot of resistance,” Cronin said.
The Zags caused even more trouble with their fast hands and feet, repelling passes and shots to create transition opportunities.
UCLA took plenty of tough shots and missed most of the open shots it got, going 11 for 41 from the field in the first half.
Even when the Bruins started to resolve Gonzaga’s defense somewhat in the second half, they couldn’t stop the Zags.
Holmgren punctuated the crush, hitting a 3 and waving to the crowd as he ran back.
Cronin succeeded when he said his team weren’t ready for Gonzaga. The Bruins have been crushed and will likely lose several spots in Monday’s Top 25 AP.
All of these new pieces seem to fit in perfectly with the old ones from Gonzaga, especially Holmgren.
DICKIE V BACK
Dickie V is back, baby!
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale was behind the microphone at T-Mobile Arena for the first time since undergoing cancer treatment.
The 82-year-old announced in October that he was suffering from lymphoma and had undergone his fourth treatment days before Tuesday’s game. Vitale became emotional as the show opened and received a loud standing ovation when shown on the video panel inside the arena.
“He loves this game and has done so much for this game,” said Few. “What an ambassador he is for college basketball.”
UCLA plays UNLV on Saturday.
Gonzaga plays number 5 Duke in Las Vegas on Friday.