LAS VEGAS — Andrew Nembhard scored 24 points, freshman Chet Holmgren showed off his unique skill set and top-ranked Gonzaga overwhelmed No. 2 UCLA 83-63 Tuesday night to win the Empire Classic.
The Zags (6-0) played like Vegas headliners, showing there’s a big gap between No. 1 and the current No. 2 with a dazzling display at both ends. Gonzaga shell shocked UCLA (5-1) with a huge early blitz and never let up to beat its second top-5 team this season.
Holmgren stole the show as a soloist at times, swatting shots, swooping for dunks and awing the crowd with his agility. The 7-foot-1, 195-pound freshman earned a deserved ovation early in the second half, when he blocked Myles Johnson’s shot and went end to end — with a dribble behind his back to boot — for a two-handed slam.
Holmgren finished with 15 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. Drew Timme was just as effective inside, scoring 18 points.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. tried to keep the Bruins in it, finishing with 19 points, but had to work for everything he got.
The Strip’s bright lights shined on college hoops luminaries all week, with No. 4 Michigan, No. 5 Duke, No. 12 Houston, Arizona, Oregon and Wisconsin appearing on the marquee.
Top billing went to the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting of teams from the Pacific Time Zone.
The Zags and Bruins played an all-timer last April in Indianapolis, an epic Final Four game won by Gonzaga on Jalen Suggs’ running 3-point buzzer beater.
Gonzaga lost Suggs and a few others, but coach Mark Few also filled in the roster holes with transfers and talented freshman, headlined by Holmgren. The Zags have looked just as good, winning their first six games by an average of 31.3 points.
UCLA has everyone back, though big man Cody Riley has been out since injuring his knee in the season opener. The Bruins didn’t look so good against Bellarmine on Monday, prompting coach Mick Cronin to say his team was not ready for Gonzaga after the 75-62 win.
He was right.
Gonzaga was at its free-flowing best on offense, picking apart the Bruins with crisp cuts and passes. The Zags made eight of their first nine shots and used a 19-2 run to go up 29-8. Even after the pace slowed, Gonzaga still led 45-25 at halftime.
The Zags caused even more problems with their quick hands and feet, swatting down passes and shots to set up transition opportunities.
UCLA took numerous difficult shots and missed most of the open ones it got, going 11 for 41 from the field in the first half.
Even when the Bruins started to somewhat solve Gonzaga’s defense in the second half, they couldn’t stop the Zags.
Holmgren capped the crushing by hitting a 3 and waving to the crowd as he ran back.
Cronin nailed it when he said his team was not ready for Gonzaga. The Bruins got steamrolled.
All those new pieces seem to be fitting in nicely with the old ones at Gonzaga, particularly Holmgren.
UCLA plays at UNLV on Saturday.
Gonzaga plays No. 5 Duke in Las Vegas Friday.