The Bulldogs (4-1) led by 13 in the first half before staving off a late charge from the Bruins (4-2) in the finale of a Thanksgiving week tournament that featured five teams ranked among the top 11 in the nation.
“I’m just incredibly proud of our guys,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That was a tough, tough kind of a rock fight of a game, where both teams were just working their tails off and the A-plan wasn’t working, the B-plan wasn’t working and we had to really, really dig deep. And we did a great job of digging deep and getting those stops there at the end and making just enough plays to eke it out.”
Watson shot 14 of 15 from the field, including 3 for 3 from beyond the arc, and grabbed seven rebounds.
The 6-foot-8 graduate forward poured in 25 points after halftime. His previous career best was 23 points against Portland on Jan. 9, 2021.
“It really just felt good,” Watson said. “I was talking to my brother a lot and I just kind of told him that I just needed to see the first one go through, and I was just being aggressive and they kind of gave me some open shots and I just kept it rolling. So yeah, just being aggressive, that’s been kind of key this whole year for me and this was the game to do it.”
Ryan Nembhard scored 12 points and Nolan Hickman added 11 for the Bulldogs, who shot 43% from the floor.
Sebastian Mack and Lazar Stefanovic had 16 points apiece to lead the Bruins, who shot 35% on field goals.
“We’ve got a lot to fix, but I like the way our guys never gave up despite the fact that we didn’t make a lot of shots and Watson had a great night," UCLA coach Mick Cronin said.
UCLA cut its deficit to three in the final minute, but Ben Gregg hit a free throw to make it 67-63 with 21 seconds remaining.
“Obviously, hard-fought game,” Cronin said. “We got behind early. I thought the first, I don’t know, whether it’s eight minutes, whatever it was, our intensity wasn’t what it needed to be. From there we started competing a lot harder and gave ourselves a chance. So obviously, take my hat off to Watson. He was dominant, carried his team to victory.”
It was the fourth time in as many seasons that the teams have squared off. Gonzaga defeated UCLA 79-76 in the 2023 Sweet 16 and has won the last four meetings.
Gonzaga, picked second behind Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference preseason poll, rebounded from a 73-63 loss to No. 2 Purdue on Monday by winning its final two games against Power Five opponents in Hawaii.
UCLA has nonconference matchups against Villanova and Ohio State on the horizon in its leadup to Pac-12 play. Progress will come incrementally with an inexperienced roster that features two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior in the starting lineup. The Bruins, picked third in the Pac-12 preseason poll, gained valuable experience over the course of a nine-day trip through Spain in August.
Gonzaga will host CSU Bakersfield next Tuesday. The Zags are 4-0 all-time against the Roadrunners.
UCLA faces UC Riverside on Nov. 30 at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have won all five meetings with the Highlanders.
Get poll alerts and updates on AP Top 25 basketball throughout the season. Sign up here
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball
Copyright 2024 STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.