SALT LAKE CITY – Six minutes remained and Gonzaga’s 22-point lead in the first half had melted to seven.
Northwestern fans were challenging the structural integrity of Vivint Smart Home Arena with their eruptions after every Wildcat basket or free throw.
Gonzaga led 63-56, but the Wildcats were closing fast. The Zags’ memorable season and NCAA tournament fortunes were hanging in the balance.
Sounds like a job for a couple of 19-year-olds. Coach Mark Few turned to his bench and inserted freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie for Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams.
The dividends didn’t come immediately. Vic Law’s rebound and dunk dialed up the volume and cut GU’s lead to five. A Northwestern free throw trimmed it to four.
“I guess you’re supposed to be (nervous) but I had no choice,” said Collins, who scored GU’s last six points in a 73-71 win over Iowa State in the AdvoCare Invitational title game in Orlando. “When the game is so tight like that, me and Tillie couldn’t be nervous.”
Few calls Tillie a “problem solver.” Everyone calls Collins “Z-bo”, but finisher seemed more appropriate on this afternoon. Both came through in crunch time as the second-ranked Zags edged Northwestern 79-73.
Earlier in the second half, Collins blunted a Northwestern rally with two straight three-point plays on the low block.
But that only temporarily held off the Wildcats.
With just under 3 minutes left, the Zags went to the 7-footer on two straight plays on the low block. He made a tough, off-balance 4-footer. On the next play, he drew a foul and made 1 of 2 free throws.
Then it was Tillie’s turn. A Wildcats’ turnover sent GU sprinting down court where Tillie dunked home Silas Melson’s lob pass. The 6-10 forward, still wearing a padded brace on the right hand he broke last month, grabbed a rebound and buried two free throws.
Later, he sounded like a 19-year-old kid playing in a pick-up game at the park.
“I just tried to go on the court and have fun and put my energy into it,” Tillie said. “I really liked playing at the end with Z-bo and handling it how we handled it.”
Collins made two more free throws and finally time ran out on a marathon, foul-plagued second half.
Few said the players essentially determine who’s on the floor down the stretch by their performance. Fans often are glued to the offensive numbers but Few stressed the importance of defense, too.
The youngsters didn’t leave him much choice against Northwestern. They were stellar at both ends of the court.
“Coach Few has done that (shown confidence in him) all year, not even just in games but he’s on me in practice to always post up and ask for the ball,” Collins said. “I know if he’s putting that faith in me I have to take care of business.”
Collins put up 14 points, five rebounds and four blocks. Tillie added eight points, five boards, one block and one steal.
“We don’t win that game without Tillie,” said Collins.
“Zach was phenomenal,” guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “He had everything working.”
“Those two played great,” Karnowski said. “They delivered when we needed them to. They’re good. They can do that on a daily basis.”
They certainly picked the right day Saturday.