It just took a while.
During their six-game losing streak, the Gonzaga men’s basketball players repeatedly found themselves in crucial situations and repeatedly responded by making just enough bad plays to lose the games.
Not lose big. Not lose embarrassingly. Just lose.
Wednesday, though, the “new and improved” Bulldogs did absolutely everything right down the stretch - despite having aggressive defenders up inside their shirts - to drop a solid Portland team 74-59 in front of 3,503 in the Martin Centre.
Probably, Gonzaga would have been expected to lose to the 16-7 Pilots, but the convincing win validated any beliefs the Bulldogs harbor that they can get it together and roll in the West Coast Conference tournament in Santa Clara in two weeks.
“It was a really good effort and is very rewarding to this team,” GU coach Dan Fitzgerald said. “They’ve battled back through a lot.”
It was a game that featured several key elements:
Bald is beautiful: At least when you’re talking about the shaven head of GU guard John Rillie.
With his parents in attendance - all the way from Australia - the senior guard put on a brilliant shooting display, scoring 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting (6 of 9 from 3-point range). Rillie made all five of his second-half shots.
“This is the first game we played well down the stretch,” Rillie said. “Tonight, we stuck with it and came out with a good win.”
Last year, the visit of Rillie’s parents coincided with a slight shooting slump on his part. “This year, I hope they bring us good luck all the way through the tournament,” he said.
Red hot and rolling: This was GU’s fifth consecutive league win and improved its overall mark to 16-7.
“To start out 0-6 and now win five in a row, to beat a good team and play good defense, that’s really a good effort for us,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of magazines picked us to finish last and that’s where we were three weeks ago. We’re not now, and those kids really battled back and showed a lot of courage.
After Saturday’s rematch at Portland, GU is at home in the Martin Centre for its final two regular-season games vs. San Francisco and San Diego.
Better late than never: Bulldogs guard Jon Kinloch, the team’s leading scorer, was virtually invisible for the first 36 minutes of play Wednesday - missing all five of his attempts.
But down the stretch, Kinloch rallied and helped save the Bulldogs from the kind of collapse that has plagued them. A 3-pointer, a driving layup off the baseline and a pair of free throws on consecutive possessions helped GU build a cushion at 61-50 with 3:02 left in the game.
He then added four more free throws to help hold off the Pilots.
“In the last two years, sometimes I’d miss shots early and check out of the game,” Kinloch said. “I know I can’t do that with this team. I’m gonna miss shots, but I came back when we needed it; I had the confidence to stick with it.”
First-half blues: The first half appeared to be an experiment in how badly the Bulldogs could play and still be in the game.
In those 20 minutes, GU made only eight of 28 shots (28.6 percent) and two of six free throws. Take away the 4-for-7 shooting of Rillie from 3-point range and the Bulldogs were an embarrassing 4-for-21.
Still, somehow, they trailed only 26-23 at intermission.
Hot bench: Pilots Canaan Chatman and Curt Ranta are among the league’s top scorers, but UP got very little out of its starting lineup Wednesday.
In fact, the starting five accounted for only 27 points, with five reserves scoring the remaining 32.
Ross 0-6 1-2 1, Holton 0-2 0-0 0, Ranta 3-9 4-4 10, Daniels 4-6 0-0 8, Chatman 2-8 4-8 8, Flicker 4-6 1-2 13, Brainard 3-6 0-0 7, Metoyer 1-3 0-0 3, Fines 0-0 0-0 0, Anderson 3-4 2-4 9. Totals 20-50 12-20 59.
Dixon 2-9 1-2 5, Rillie 9-12 5-6 29, Rogers 2-7 1-5 5, Kinloch 2-9 6-8 11, Rubright 1-3 1-2 3, Morgan 3-6 4-5 10, Cole 2-6 0-0 6, Snider 0-2 3-4 3, Bond 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 22-56 21-32 74.
Halftime-Portland 26, Gonzaga 23. 3-Point goals-Portland 7-10 (Flicker 4-4, Brainard 1-2, Metoyer 1-2 Anderson 1-2), Gonzaga 9-19 (Dixon 0-2, Rillie 6-9, Kinloch 1-4, Cole 2-4). Fouled out-Daniels. Rebounds-Portland 38 (Ranta, Chatman, Brainard 6), Gonzaga 40 (Morgan 6). Assists-Portland 4 (Ross, Flicker, Metoyer, Anderson 1), Gonzaga 9 (Rogers, Kinloch 3). Total fouls-Portland 25, Gonzaga 15. A-3,503.