SEATTLE – A comeback looked like the last thing Gonzaga would need after constructing a 16-point lead at half.
It became a necessity when Tennessee rallied to take the lead midway through the second half. The Volunteers were still on top by one with 6:36 remaining.
Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer and Eric McClellan led the way in crunch time as Gonzaga edged Tennessee 86-79 Saturday in front of a record Battle in Seattle crowd of 16,770 at KeyArena. GU is 9-4 overall in the Battle in Seattle and has won five straight.
“We have a tendency to make things really dramatic,” coach Mark Few said. “But you know what, we dug our heels in and played great basketball down the stretch.”
Sabonis poured in a career-high 36 points and equaled his career best with 16 rebounds. Wiltjer overcame a subpar shooting night (6 of 19) to finish with 24 points and McClellan chipped in 13.
“We knew we had an advantage inside, we just had to take care of it,” said Sabonis, who reached the 20-point mark with 4:40 left in the first half. “I made my first couple of shots, my confidence came up and I just kept shooting.”
“He played with four fouls for probably the last 4-5 minutes,” Few said of Sabonis. “For us, that shows a lot of growth. He was a man in there. What a monster line. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”
Add Tennessee to the list of recent opponents (Connecticut, Arizona, Montana and UCLA) that have outscored the Zags in the second half. The Volunteers, who trailed by 19 late in the first half, stormed in front 61-59 on Devon Balkman’s 3-pointer.
The Volunteers utilized a four-guard lineup and had success with dribble penetration and from beyond the 3-point arc (10 of 21).
“That team is a tough matchup for us,” Few said. “We’ve got bigs and they have quick, athletic guys that can spread you out and shoot it. They were picking the matchup they liked against our big and attacking it pretty good.”
Kyle Alexander’s two free throws gave the Vols a 65-64 lead. Josh Perkins, battling foul trouble again, made his only field goal to put Gonzaga back in front to stay. The Zags led 75-69 but the Vols (5-5) had one last run and tied it at 75.
Gonzaga (8-3) scored the next six points on a Sabonis basket in the lane and four free throws by Wiltjer, who made 9 of 10 at the line.
“That’s where we’ve been on him,” Few said. “He kind of wants to float out there on the perimeter. He’s such a great free-throw shooter. He has to understand like all of our great scorers, like Adam (Morrison) and Dan (Dickau), the line is your friend and understand when the other team is in the bonus you have to get yourself there.”
Wiltjer grabbed six rebounds as the Zags won the glass 42-32.
“We got a couple of key stops and pushed it at them and put foul pressure on them,” Wiltjer said. “That was huge in the second half.”
Gonzaga took command early with Sabonis, Wiltjer and McClellan going to work at the offensive end. The Zags built a double-digit lead in the first 6 minutes.
The shorter Vols had no answer for Sabonis, who finished 12 of 16 from the field. Wiltjer added 12 points and McClellan chipped in nine, including a high-flying dunk to punctuate a baseline drive and a 16-foot jumper to bump Gonzaga’s lead to 49-33 at half.
It was GU’s first 40-point half against a Division I foe since scoring 43 in the opening half against Connecticut in the season’s fifth game. The Zags committed one turnover in the first half on a Ryan Edwards’ offensive foul.
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