MALIBU, Calif. – Kyle Dranginis stood at the free-throw line with Pepperdine’s packed student section serenading him with chants of “airball, airball, airball.”
Gonzaga was hanging on to a two-point lead with 18.9 seconds remaining. One minute before, Dranginis had missed badly on an open 3-point attempt that probably would have put the game out of reach for the Waves.
“I could hear it,” said the senior guard, a 50-percent free-throw shooter. “I wanted redemption. I needed redemption for that airball. They were going crazy when they saw I got fouled but I was happy. I didn’t want to end the game that way.”
Dranginis calmly hit both foul shots on a night when the free-throw line was friendly to the Zags, who sweated out a 69-66 victory late Saturday night in front of 3,210 at Firestone Fieldhouse.
“Those were clutch,” GU coach Mark Few said. “That took a lot of courage after the way that 3 went.”
Gonzaga has won 31 straight games over Pepperdine dating back to 2002 and many in recent years have followed Saturday’s script. The Zags built a fairly comfortable lead but had to hold off a Waves’ rally in the closing minutes. GU won 78-76 in this building last season.
Gonzaga (19-5, 11-2 WCC) maintained its hold on the conference lead. Saint Mary’s is in second place at 10-2 after winning at San Diego.
“You can’t ever let your guard down and get complacent because they’re going to be aggressive the whole 40 minutes,” said Dranginis, who finished with five points, five assists and two steals. “It’s tough to beat a team like that.”
It wouldn’t have happened without the all-around play of Domantas Sabonis, who delivered 20 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. Kyle Wiltjer scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half and Josh Perkins added 10 points, six boards, five assists and two blocked shots. Silas Melson came off the bench to finish with nine points.
Sabonis missed one shot – a field-goal attempt. He was 12 of 12 at the free-throw line. Gonzaga made its last nine at the stripe and 21 of 23 overall. Gonzaga had just two field goals in the final 10:25.
“We finally got in the bonus and played with that in mind,” Few said. “We’ve had a lot of games this year where we reminded them of that and we kept shooting jumpers and settling. That’s a good way to create offense in a physical game like that.”
After Dranginis’ free throws put GU up 67-63, Pepperdine (14-10, 7-6) raced down the floor but freshman forward Kameron Edwards – 0 for 5 on 3s this season – was way off target on a 3-pointer against the Zags’ zone defense. Sabonis grabbed the board and fed Melson for a dunk with 6.3 seconds remaining.
The Waves’ Stacy Davis made his fifth 3-pointer but time ran out before Pepperdine could foul a GU player.
Davis poured in 26 points, despite sitting for nearly eight minutes in the second half after picking up his fourth foul. Gonzaga’s defense was fairly solid against the rest of the Waves, who made just 16 of 45 attempts. Pepperdine, which went 17 of 37 at the foul line in Thursday’s loss to Portland, was just 11 of 17.
“As sometimes happens, I think Stacy had made three 3s (in 25 attempts) in league and he banged in five on us,” Few said. “He’s a great player but we were pretty darn resilient. We did a great job in the second half with our zone directing shots and we switched back to man and made some nice plays.”
The Zags toyed with the idea of opening up a comfortable lead but each time their advantage reached double digits they’d follow it by missing a defensive assignment, allowing a put-back basket or making an unforced turnover.
Gonzaga lost its grip on a 43-30 lead early in the second half when Davis broke loose for eight straight points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
The Zags went in front 51-41 on Wiltjer’s jump hook with 12:02 left. Pepperdine scored 10 of the next 13 points, capped by Edwards’ breakaway dunk following a Zag turnover.
The Zags led 34-26 at half. The margin would have been wider but the Waves grabbed six offensive rebounds – GU had zero – for a 7-0 edge in second-chance points that helped offset their 37-percent shooting.