That was a treat to watch, a 40-minute thrill-ride that Gonzaga claimed, 88-84, over BYU in the WCC tournament semifinals late Monday night. And by late, we mean ending way too tight to deadline!
I put together a game story that you read below.
By Jim Meehan
LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga kept its WCC tournament and NCAA tournament hopes alive with a thrilling 88-84 WCC tournament semifinal victory over BYU late Monday night at the Orleans Arena.
The second-seeded Zags (25-7) outlasted the third-seeded Cougars (23-10) in the most entertaining game of Gonzaga’s up-and-down season. GU will try to avenge two regular-season losses to No. 1 Saint Mary’s (27-4) in Tuesday’s championship game and land its 18th straight NCAA tournament bid.
The Gaels eliminated No. 4 Pepperdine 81-66.
“It was just a great, epic basketball game,” coach Mark Few said. “I can’t tell you how much respect we have for them. They play so stinking hard and just come at you the full 40 minutes. I thought there were some unbelievable performances on both sides of the ball and I thought our guys showed great courage making those plays down the stretch.”
The Zags, down to seven scholarship players without reserve center Ryan Edwards (knee) and utilizing only six players in the second half, won a fiercely contested affair behind contributions from all five starters, led by Kyle Wiltjer’s 29 points, his most since dropping 35 on Santa Clara in late January.
“Both teams were fighting for their lives,” Wiltjer said. “A lot of people don’t see us as a tournament team so when it creates that environment there’s just that desperation. Both teams were playing so hard, putting it all on the line. We were fortunate to make the right plays when we needed to.
“Hats off to (BYU), they’re a great team.”
Gonzaga made huge plays in crunch time – a Wiltjer corner 3-pointer, a Kyle Dranginis’ blocked shot, a Domantas Sabonis layup on a Josh Perkins’ feed, a pair of Eric McClellan free throws, a Dranginis free throw with 17.5 seconds remaining and two more free throws by Perkins with 7 ticks left.
The Zags needed every one of those plays to hold off BYU and reach the WCC title game for the 19th consecutive season.
“That’s unbelievable,” said Few, briefly interrupting a moderator who had just mentioned GU’s streak of title-game appearances. “That’s crazy.”
Sabonis, double-teamed nearly every time he touched the ball, powered for 18 points and 14 rebounds. Perkins added 17 points and five assists. McClellan had 15 points and four boards and Dranginis chipped in seven points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Nick Emery, who led BYU with five 3-pointers and 27 points, opened the second half with a 3 to give BYU its first lead since 2-0. Gonzaga responded with nine straight points, four on a pair of pretty moves by Wiltjer, to take a 56-50 lead.
The Zags led the rest of the way but never by a comfortable margin. Wiltjer’s 3 bumped Gonzaga’s lead to 74-70. The margin reached seven on another Wiltjer 3, set up by a clever pump-fake.
BYU pulled within 83-79 but Wiltjer went to the floor in pursuit of a rebound and poked the ball out to a teammate. The extra possession led to McClellan hitting two key free throws.
“I saw it go up, I knew the game was on the line so I had to crash it,” said Wiltjer, who had eight rebounds. “I got hit in the face trying to tip it out. I’m just glad my teammates through the ups and downs this season stayed with it and stayed positive.”
Wiltjer poured in 17 points and Perkins added 11 but it was tied at 47 after a first-half track meet. Gonzaga had the upper hand from the outset as Wiltjer buried consecutive 3s and Perkins and McClellan each added a trey for a 16-8 lead.
The margin grew to 36-26 after Wiltjer’s hook shot but then the Bulldogs got sloppy with the ball. GU had just one turnover in the first 10-plus minutes but then the miscues came fast and furious. The Zags finished the half with nine turnovers, leading to a 15-5 BYU edge in points off turnovers.
The Zags, who committed six second-half turnovers, won the glass 40-33 and outshot BYU 49.1 percent to 44.3.