PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Gonzaga’s 21-point lead early in the second half melted all the way down to a single point.
Senior guard Kyle Dranginis decided that was close enough.
Dranginis delivered a put-back basket and a steal in the last 54 seconds to carry Gonzaga to the finish line of a 73-70 victory Friday over No. 18 Connecticut to claim third place in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Zags (4-1) were comfortably in front 48-27 after Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointer with 18:51 left. GU was still on top 67-53 on Eric McClellan’s 3-pointer with 7:45 remaining. Connecticut (4-2) wouldn’t go away, cashing in on dribble penetration and repeated trips to the free-throw line to close within 71-70.
“I was worried, very worried. That was a huge run (by UConn),” said coach Mark Few, whose team let a small lead slip away late in Thursday’s 62-61 loss to Texas A&M. “We were playing tentative. I hate it when we play tentative, drives me nuts. We need to fix that when we go back home. These guys flipped the switch and we got three stops down the stretch.”
The Zags finished 2-1 at the tourney and earned their first win over a ranked opponent since thumping No. 22 SMU early last season.
“I’m happy for sure about today, and coming back from a one-point loss,” center Przemek Karnowski said. “We responded as a team. We’re going home on a good note.”
Gonzaga, sputtering offensively in crunch time for the second straight game, didn’t get a quality look as Domantas Sabonis missed in traffic but Dranginis swooped in for the rebound follow, bumping GU’s lead to 73-70.
“Josh (Perkins) was crashing and my guy had to help box him out,” Dranginis said. “It kind of just bounced to me. That’s what happens when you hustle every time. You’re probably not going to get it every time but that one out of 10 can make a big difference.”
Dranginis intercepted a pass at the other end but the Zags gave the ball back on a shot-clock violation with 6.6 seconds left.
Gonzaga planned on fouling to avoid a potential tying 3-pointer but adjusted when the 7-foot-1 Karnowski ended up on guard Sterling Gibbs. Karnowski swatted Gibbs’ long 3-point attempt. Rodney Purvis’ desperation 3 wasn’t close as time expired.
“I’m just proud of our guys,” Few said. “The third day of a tournament is all about showing what kind of competitor you are. You can pout after the disappointing loss we felt we should have won, or you can show up and compete.”
Gonzaga’s guards followed up a promising performance against Texas A&M with a better showing against the Huskies. McClellan had 15 points and no turnovers, key with point guard Perkins saddled with foul issues for the second time in three games. Silas Melson made three 3-pointers and added 12 points, four boards and three assists. Dranginis contributed eight rebounds, seven boards, five assists, one block and one steal.
Wiltjer scored a team-high 17 points. Sabonis chipped in 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists.
“We know our bigs are going to be dominant day in, day out,” Melson said. “The talk of the whole country is what the guards are going to do. We really have a chip on our shoulder and want to show we can ball out the same way.”
The Zags played their best basketball of the young season, shooting 53 percent and hitting seven 3-pointers in building a 43-27 halftime lead. Melson connected on all three of his 3-point attempts and Wiltjer’s back-to-back treys shot UConn out of a zone defense.
Forward Shonn Miller led UConn with 19 points. Daniel Hamilton added 14, but made just 5 of 16 shots. The Huskies made just 1 of 12 3-pointers, but they still threw a major scare into the Zags.
“We know this has happened a couple of times now,” Sabonis said. “It’s going to help us grow when the important games come in the NCAA tournament. We’ll be prepared.”