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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

A Paint Roller for Gonzaga

Stepp has an off night from the outside, so Zags go to the inside game for their 21st consecutive victory, 76-49 over Valparaiso.

March 19, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — What a wacky-sounding first-round game: Valpo versus the Zags.

Valparaiso and Gonzaga were once both March underdogs, but the Zags are favorites these days, with a No. 2 seeding and a No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press poll.

They haven't lost since a seven-point defeat to Stanford in December, and they ran off their 21st victory in a row Thursday with a 76-49 victory over Valparaiso in front of 15,827 Thursday at KeyArena.

Gonzaga (28-2) will play Nevada, an upset winner over Michigan State, in the second round Saturday.

"You have to really compliment them," said Valparaiso Coach Homer Drew, who called Gonzaga "more physical inside" than Duke, another team Valpo played.

"They are deep, they've got seniors and I wish them to do well," Drew said. "I hope they do it the whole way. It would make us feel good to have lost to a national champion."

Playing across the state from its home in Spokane, Gonzaga had plenty of fans as the Zags begin what they hope will be their first trip to the Final Four.

Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16 three times and the Elite Eight once, in 1999.

(Valpo made the Sweet 16 in 1998, upsetting Mississippi in the first round on Bryce Drew's last-second shot.)

Gonzaga's Blake Stepp, the two-time West Coast Conference player of the year, had a cold shooting night against Valparaiso, missing his first nine shots before scoring on a driving layup with 5:42 left in the game.

He missed his first eight three-point shots before finally sinking one with less than four minutes left in the game. But he was solid from the free-throw line, making eight of 10, and finished with 13 points.

"We've got so many guys, as long as other guys score, it's not important," Stepp said.

"If I'm not shooting well, as long as I get the ball to other guys in the right spot and get some assists, it can be a pretty good game."

That's exactly what he did against Valparaiso, handing out nine assists -- raising his career total to 202 and passing NBA great John Stockton on Gonzaga's career assist list in the process.

With Stepp's shot off, Gonzaga pounded the ball inside against smaller Valparaiso, outscoring the Crusaders in the paint by 30 points, 46-16.

Ronny Turiaf, Gonzaga's powerfully athletic 6-foot-10 forward, led the way with 15 points and Cory Violette had 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Zags, who shot 51.7% from the field.

They also got solid help from the bench. Freshman Adam Morrison made five of seven shots, scoring 10 points and pulling down seven rebounds in 14 minutes.

Valparaiso (18-13) was led by 13 points from Kikas Gomes and 12 by Jimmie Miles coming off the bench.

Dan Oppland, Valparaiso's leading scorer, was held to eight, half of his 16-point average, as Gonzaga's defense helped hold Valparaiso to 28.6% shooting (18 for 63).

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