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Sixth-ranked Gonzaga hits its stride with NCAA Tournament approaching

Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. hits a 3-pointer over BYU’s Elijah Bryant in Tuesday’s West Coast Conference Tournament title game in Las Vegas. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. hits a 3-pointer over BYU’s Elijah Bryant in Tuesday’s West Coast Conference Tournament title game in Las Vegas. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – The question was telegraphed and Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins intercepted it like an All-Pro cornerback.

“Exactly what I was going to say,” responded Perkins, when asked if Gonzaga is playing its best basketball following Tuesday’s 74-54 rout over BYU in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship at Orleans Arena.

“That last 20 minutes was scary, and fun to be part of,” Perkins added. “If we keep doing that, the sky is the limit for this group. I’m feeling really confident going into the (NCAA) tournament.”

He’s not alone. No. 6 Gonzaga mustered three of its best halves of the season in three tournament wins. The Zags shot sizzling field-goal percentages in the second half against Loyola Marymount and in the first half versus San Francisco. They blitzed BYU with a 36-4 stretch of domination.

Gonzaga didn’t substitute once in the first 11 minutes of the second half. There was no need to mess with what was unfolding on the court.

“Unbelievable,” said sophomore forward Rui Hachimura, who had a good vantage point from the bench. “Defense, offense, we had good communication, good ball movement, team defense. Coach (Mark) Few just talked about it, that it was the craziest thing he’d ever seen.”

BYU, stoked with confidence after hanging 85 points on Saint Mary’s in a semifinal win, didn’t reach 30 points in either half. The Cougars scored four points in the first 11 minutes of the second half.

“We’re looking good right now,” said Hachimura, seated next to a WCC Tournament trophy. “The NCAA Tournament is going to be good, really good.”

That wasn’t in the long-range forecast of the media and probably even some of the Zags’ most devoted fans last fall. Gonzaga lost four of its top five scorers from last year’s march to the NCAA championship game. WCC coaches pegged Saint Mary’s as the preseason favorite.

All the Zags did was collect another WCC regular-season and tournament championship and climb into the top 10 in the rankings. They appear headed for a high seed in their 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament.

Still, there hasn’t been much buzz nationally about this team until the last few weeks.

“I feel like the hungriest dog hunts best,” senior forward Johnathan Williams said. “We’re still under the radar. It makes us even hungrier to get back (to the Final Four).”

The Zags seemingly have surprised everybody but themselves.

“Everybody tries to put us on the backburner, but that’s not our problem,” guard Zach Norvell Jr. said. “It’s not what we look for. Keep winning and everything will take care of itself.

“I’m looking forward to (the NCAA Tournament), knowing it’s just going to get better, more competitive. Just keep playing Gonzaga basketball.”

That was more than enough in Las Vegas with three wins by an average of 20.7 points.

“It’s the best moment of the year and you have to be ready,” said forward Killian Tillie, voted the WCC Tournament’s most outstanding player. “It’s that time of the year.”


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