LAS VEGAS – He kissed a step-back jumper off the glass to score Gonzaga’s first points. He wove through white jerseys in the lane, splintering a UCLA team that was lauded for its defensive identity during a run to the Final Four. He drained two 3-pointers, didn’t miss a free throw and led the Bulldogs in transition, converting fast-break layups on consecutive possessions to push Gonzaga’s lead to 23 points in the first half.
On a night when Mick Cronin told reporters he didn’t wish to talk much about Gonzaga’s players, not even the UCLA coach could resist paying a compliment to Andrew Nembhard.
“He was clearly the best player on the floor tonight,” Cronin said. “Before I even looked at the stats, I don’t even need to see the stats. He was clearly the best player on the floor tonight, hands down. I don’t think anybody’s going to disagree with that, not if you were at the game.”
The stats do nothing but reaffirm Cronin’s claim that Nembhard was the unanimous MVP of No. 1 Gonzaga’s 83-63 blowout of No. 2 UCLA in a Final Four rematch at T-Mobile Center.
Nembhard didn’t come off the floor in a game that pushed Gonzaga’s record to 6-0, and the senior point guard finished with a game-high 24 points, chipping in six assists, five rebounds and three steals. For those who prefer to measure a player’s impact with plus/minus, Nembhard was also the game’s leader in that category, finishing at +20.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few thought his coaching counterpart was spot-on in his evaluation of Nembhard’s outing but noted it’s also not unusual for the veteran guard to make the game’s biggest impact, even when he isn’t the leading scorer.
“I consider him usually the best player pretty much every night, and it’s just such a comforting thing to have as a coach when you have the best point guard in the country because you know the stuff you want done out there is going to get done,” Few said. “He’s got a great understanding of the game. You don’t have to call a lot of stuff or do a lot of stuff, direct a lot of stuff because your point guard’s so well-schooled in it.”
Nembhard looked for his shot early and led the Bulldogs in field-goal attempts, connecting on 9 of 13 and 2 of 6 from the 3-point line. Playing alongside Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Chet Holmgren, Nembhard’s accepted his role as a facilitator, but at times the occasion calls for a more aggressive approach .
“I’m proud of him because, again, he’s always been very unselfish or even times last year where I thought he was a little too unselfish and he’s capable of scoring, he’s capable of getting downhill and making those finishes and also knocking it down from 3,” Few said. “I think everyone was able to see the stuff we get to see in practice.”
Nembhard’s 24 points were the most he’s scored in 37 games at Gonzaga, but he fell one point shy of his career high, accomplished twice at Florida.
“I didn’t (know), I was just playing the game,” Nembhard said, asked if he was aware of his close he was to matching his personal record.
Speaking about his offensive approach, Nembhard said his goal was “just to stay aggressive, what coach was saying. I knew they were going to have a big focus on Drew. He had 37 against Texas so we need some offense from other people. So I was just trying to come into the game with that mindset.”
Few also praised Nembhard for his defensive play on UCLA star Johnny Juzang, who scored only 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
“Looking at Juzang’s number, Andrew was on him a lot of this game,” Few said. “To hold him down like that, Juzang is a big-time scorer.
“He’s got a big-time game, pull-up jumper and awesome 3, floaters, and I thought we did a great job on him. That was mostly Andrew.”