SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Welcome to the Leavey Center, where the odd, unusual and unpredictable happen, at least when Gonzaga walks through the front doors for its annual visit.
It’s never easy for the Zags here and that was the case again Thursday as they relied on freshman point guard Josh Perkins’ career-high 26 points and his heads-up plays in the closing seconds to edge Santa Clara 79-77 in front of 3,121.
On a day when center Przemek Karnowski had season-ending back surgery, Zag faithful watched anxiously as Domantas Sabonis played despite a tweaked ankle early in the second half and Kyle Wiltjer hobbled off the floor in the final seconds with a foot issue.
Gonzaga (11-3, 3-0 WCC) pulled out its fifth straight victory thanks to clutch baskets by Sabonis and Wiltjer, clutch free throws by Sabonis, Wiltjer and Eric McClellan, a couple of key defensive stands late and Perkins’ game-long production.
Santa Clara coach “Kerry Keating’s teams have always played us really well in this building,” GU coach Mark Few said. “I’m proud of my team. We faced a ton of adversity, with all kinds of things happening before the game (Karnowski’s surgery) and obviously during the game. A lot of foul trouble, two twisted ankles, it was some interesting situations.”
This is the facility in which Santa Clara in 2008 had possession with 3.2 seconds left and a two-point lead but guard Brody Angley inexplicably fouled Steven Gray 75 feet from Gonzaga’s basket. Gray hit two free throws to tie it and the Zags won in double overtime. In 2009, in the midst of a decisive GU run, Santa Clara was whistled for a technical foul when a fan tossed an empty pop bottle onto the court. In 2011, Kevin Foster erupted for 36 points in a Santa Clara win, its last in the series. In 2014, Sam Dower Jr. hit a 3-pointer on a broken play with 1.9 seconds left in Gonzaga’s 54-52 victory.
Thursday brought another wild finish, with Perkins right in the middle of it. One of his biggest plays was missing a free throw intentionally with 2.5 seconds left and alertly grabbing the rebound in the middle of the lane. By the time he was fouled by the stunned Broncos there was only 0.4 remaining on the clock. He made the first free throw, missed the second on purpose again and SCU’s desperation heave was nowhere close.
“Great coaching call by Few, executed perfectly,” said Perkins, who did most of his damage driving to the rim. “Same deal the next time.”
Few also instructed his players to foul intentionally in the closing seconds to avoid a potential tying 3-pointer. The strategy worked on a couple of occasions. Once, with GU on top 75-72 after a pair of McClellan free throws, Santa Clara standout guard Jared Brownridge tried to miss his second free-throw attempt but it settled into the net.
Santa Clara forward Matt Hubbard, a Colville High product, missed a layup that would have tied it with 12 seconds remaining.
“Another good second-half test for us and we did a good job responding,” said Wiltjer, who exited in the final seconds after scoring 20 points. “It’s tough to get wins on the road; teams are losing all over the place.”
Wiltjer wasn’t sure what happened on the play that left him limping. “It doesn’t feel crazy but there is a little pain (in his foot),” he said.
Gonzaga looked like it might run away from the Broncos as Wiltjer struck for 12 points in the first 9:30 and the Zags built a 23-11 lead.
The Broncos responded with a 16-2 burst, fueled by Brownridge. The junior finished the half with 16 of his 26 points and buried shots whether he was open or tightly guarded. On consecutive plays, McClellan was in good defensive position but Brownridge created just enough space to hit contested jumpers.
Sabonis, who said his ankle won’t keep him from playing Saturday against San Francisco, made his first field goal to put Gonzaga on top 40-38 at the half.
Sabonis worked around a Wiltjer screen for a layup with 2:46 left to give GU the lead for good at 71-69. Wiltjer followed with a fadeaway jumper from 15 feet.
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