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‘Phenomenal’ Nigel Williams-Goss picks apart USF as Gonzaga handles Dons, 95-80

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) celebrates with forward Zach Collins after a Gonzaga basket against San Francisco during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) celebrates with forward Zach Collins after a Gonzaga basket against San Francisco during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO – Nigel Williams-Goss is feeling much better, thank you.

That was evident as the junior guard torched San Francisco for a career-high 36 points, 11 rebounds and six assists to carry the fifth-ranked Zags to a 95-80 victory in front of a packed house of 3,814 at War Memorial Gym.

Scary thing is, Williams-Goss still isn’t at full strength after battling an illness during the Pacific game last Saturday and the ensuing few days.

“Definitely the hardest game I’ve ever played in,” Williams-Goss said of Pacific. “I’m still not 100 percent. I started feeling better Tuesday or Wednesday.”

He was in bed most of Sunday and Monday. He practiced some on Tuesday and was able to do quite a bit more Wednesday.

Thursday? He had one of the better individual performances in school history.

“Phenomenal,” said coach Mark Few, after his team improved to 15-0, 3-0 in the WCC. After a brief pause, Few added, “Phenomenal in a lot of ways. Eleven rebounds, six assists, one turnover. Twelve of 15 (from the field), that’s a big-time game.”

Maybe as impressive as his stat line – he eclipsed his season-high of 23 against Washington and his career-best of 32 versus Oregon State when he was a Husky – was the timing of his baskets.

He single-handedly took apart a Dons’ zone defense that had left the Zags’ turnover-prone at times. And when USF played man-to-man, it was no contest. He used his size and strength to penetrate or post-up.

“Just being more aggressive,” Williams-Goss said. “Sometimes what a zone defense can do is make you a little more tentative. You can attack the zone just as aggressively as you can man-to-man.

“Once we got more aggressive, we started getting things on our terms instead of theirs.”

USF (11-5, 1-2) was threatening to make a game of it, clawing within 59-49 with 13 minutes left, when Williams-Goss drove and dished to Silas Melson for a three-point play.

Williams-Goss followed with a 3-pointer, a pair of free throws and a crossover-dribble, step-back jumper that elicited oohs and ahhs from the crowd and a slight smirk from the player.

“At this level, you’re playing against a lot of high-level players, a lot of high-level defenses,” said Williams-Goss, who also delivered the Zags’ first double-double of the season. “When you do have one of these games, I’ve learned to just enjoy it.”

Gonzaga’s lead was 17 and would reach 22 after he pumped in two more free throws and another pure jumper.

“We gave him a couple easy loose-ball buckets and he got momentum,” Dons coach Kyle Smith said. “And he just didn’t really stop. Good basketball player. Shoot, makes you scratch your head a little bit.”

Williams-Goss’s contribution went beyond the numbers. GU looked rattled at times, committing unforced turnovers when USF turned to the zone late in the first half.

USF tried the same tactic in the second half after a couple possessions of man defense resulted in two quick GU baskets. Williams-Goss steadied the offense and the Zags found quality looks nearly every possession against the zone. At one point, GU was 13 of 17 from the field.

“He filled up the stat line,” said freshman forward Killian Tillie, who had a season-high 12 points. “He really helped us, also as a leader. He talks to us, helps us, and that’s really important for the team. He kept answering them by making tough shots.”

Gonzaga “cooled off” to 60-percent shooting in the second half and a season-high 61 percent overall. The Zags scored at will for a big chunk of the second half when they took care of the ball.

Williams-Goss had 15 points as GU led by as many as 18 before settling for a 46-36 edge at the break.

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