Matthew Graves was thrilled with South Alabama's response. He was disappointed with the slow start that led to the Jaguars' comeback against No. 20 Gonzaga.
"I thought our guys showed great resolve," said Graves, the Jaguars' first-year coach. "That game could have easily been 40 and we could have ended up quitting, but I'm proud they hung tough."
Gary Bell Jr. scored 14 of his 20 points in the first half, helping the Bulldogs build a huge lead in the first 10 minutes of a 68-59 victory at Seattle's Key Arena.
South Alabama got a career performance from forward Augustine Rubit, who scored 35 points, but it came after the Jaguars were blitzed in the first 10 minutes by Gonzaga and were facing a 22-3 deficit.
Graves put together South Alabama's schedule in the hope it wouldn't be overwhelmed by situations such as the one it faced in the opening minutes against Gonzaga. The Jaguars have already played at Texas, face Arkansas next week and play at New Mexico State later in December.
"I want our team to play in games like this because our goal is to play in NCAA games," Graves said. "So if you don't play in games like this to prepare your team then you are going to get shell shocked your first game of the NCAA tournament. ... We need to get used to playing that caliber of teams because we want to play for championships at the end of the day."
Graves can only hope Rubit continues to play the way he did against the Bulldogs. Rubit supplied the bulk of the Jaguars' offense. No other South Alabama player had more than eight points.
Rubit made 11 of 16 shots and all 10 of his free-throw attempts. He also grabbed seven rebounds.
"Not a lot of people have had an opportunity to watch him," Graves said. "He's a high-major player that has kind of been a hidden secret for a long time."
South Alabama was able to hang around because the top 3-point shooting team in the country struggled from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs entered hitting 47.6 percent of their 3s, but shot just 2 of 14 from the perimeter. Kevin Pangos, the Bulldogs' leading scorer at 19.6 points per game, made 3 of 12 shots and finished with 10 points.
Sam Dower Jr. scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half for the Bulldogs.
"We had wide open 3 looks that we've been making all year and we just didn't make them," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The Bulldogs (10-1) were making their annual visit to KeyArena, but South Alabama lacked the cache of previous opponents. The Bulldogs had faced Connecticut, Davidson, Illinois, Arizona and Kansas State in Seattle the previous five years and they were hoping to draw another big program for 2013. Those plans fell through, leading to the visit by South Alabama.
Gonzaga's early 19-point advantage was the biggest of the game and the Jaguars made it competitive in a hurry. After going 10-plus minutes with just three points, South Alabama scored 11 points in 69 seconds, eight of those from Rubit. It was the start of a 20-8 run by the Jaguars that got them within seven.
And just as quickly, the Zags retook control before halftime.
The Bulldogs closed the half on an 11-2 run that included Przemek Karnowski scoring for the first time since the opening minute of the game. Kyle Dranginis then made a floater just before the halftime buzzer and the Bulldogs had regained nearly all of their 19-point advantage from earlier in the half.
Pangos was held to one point in the first half and didn't make a field goal until the 14:25 mark of the second half. The open 3 was the start of a personal seven-point spurt by Pangos that kept Gonzaga's lead at 11.
Rubit did his part to keep South Alabama close. He scored eight of nine points during one stretch of the second half, but the Jaguars could never get closer than eight.
"We're going to learn from this," Dower said. "We made a lot of mistakes and there are a lot things we can build on, but we got the win."