It had everything usually seen in an exhibition game: Mistakes, highlight reel plays and a result that typically occurs when a Division I power faces an overmatched NAIA squad.
Unfortunately for No. 9 Gonzaga, it also had one thing it didn’t want to see: Standout forward Domantas Sabonis landing hard on the small of his back, trying to return to the court several minutes later before exiting for good, clearly in some pain.
The Zags, led by Kyle Wiltjer’s 33 points and 14 rebounds, manhandled Eastern Oregon University 90-58 Saturday but Sabonis’ condition was foremost on the minds of the 6,000 that filled the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“He just came down on it (lower back) really hard,” coach Mark Few said. “At this point, I have to sit down and talk to the trainer and we’ll have to see how bad it is. It was giving him some problems when he went back out and tried to play.”
Gonzaga’s rotation is essentially nine deep, counting Sabonis, one of the team’s four bigs. When the 6-foot-11 sophomore headed to the bench following his brief return, he chatted with Few for a few seconds, then swung a towel in frustration. He sat on the bench with a heat pad on his back/hip, rising slowly from his seat during timeouts. He’s expected to see a doctor Sunday.
The Zags started their three standout bigs – Sabonis, Wiltjer and 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski – but they barely had a chance to see them in action before Sabonis fell pursuing a rebound.
“We don’t have a lot of bodies,” Few said. “We took two transfers (Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams) that are really good players. It’s just something we’re going to have to deal with. Depth is going to be an issue all year.”
Karnowski is coming back from pneumonia, which was preceded by tonsillitis. He’s practiced the last two weeks and is getting closer to full strength.
“I was tired, but I was trying to push myself because I wanted to see exactly what kind of shape I’m in,” said Karnowski, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Wiltjer scored 24 points in the first half as GU built a 47-28 lead. The Mountaineers (3-2) left him open on the perimeter several times and the 6-10 Wiltjer took advantage inside against shorter defenders. EOU’s tallest player, 6-10 Kalvin Johanson, a Pullman High product, fouled out in 14 minutes.
“We wanted to keep it simple and use our base transition offense,” Wiltjer said. “We don’t want Pitt or whoever to be able to scout us too much. We wanted to play simple and work on our defense.”
Eric McClellan, who found out he was starting at shootaround, had 12 points, three rebounds and two steals. Josh Perkins and Ryan Edwards each had 10 points. Perkins had five of the team’s 15 assists.
Eastern Oregon led 15-9 when Sabonis crashed to the court. The Mountaineers didn’t score for nearly 8½ minutes as the Zags clamped down defensively. GU rattled off 25 straight points.
“We had a stretch of defense from maybe the 15-minute to 4-minute mark of the first half where we did some things,” Few said. “We moved the ball pretty well and could get any shot we wanted. They put five guys out and you have to chase them around. Playing with multiple big guys makes it kind of interesting.”
The Mountaineers, led by point guard Trell Washington’s 22 points, often had four guards and a wing on the court. To illustrate the size difference, Karnowski at one point was defending a 6-3 guard. At the other end, the 6-4 Washington was guarding Wiltjer on the low block, without much success.
The Zags leave Tuesday for Okinawa, Japan, where they’ll open the season against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Classic.
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