Gonzaga was rolling in the first half, Kyle Wiltjer was burying long-distance shot after long-distance shot and the defense was stifling Santa Clara’s offense.
And then the Zags rolled off course in the second half.
Gonzaga’s sloppy final 20 minutes wasn’t easy on the eyes but it didn’t do much other than shrink the final margin in an 84-67 victory in front of 6,000 Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“We played a great first half,” coach Mark Few said. “We didn’t play a great second half, at least the last 14 minutes of it.”
Asked about GU’s 16 turnovers, Few said, “Start doing their own thing like that they don’t show themselves very well. They need to figure that out, sooner better than later.”
Gonzaga (16-5, 8-2 WCC) won its second straight after falling to Saint Mary’s in Moraga last Thursday. The Broncos (7-15, 3-7) lost to Gonzaga for the 12th consecutive time.
Wiltjer had his fourth 20-point half of the season, posting 23 in the first half on the strength of 6-of-7 shooting on 3-pointers. He finished with seven 3s and 35 points, his fifth 30-point effort of the season.
Domantas Sabonis added 12 points and 17 rebounds, giving him 37 boards in the last two games. Kyle Dranginis chipped in 10 points and Bryan Alberts drilled three 3-pointers in the second half to keep Gonzaga comfortably in front.
GU led by double digits after Josh Perkins’ 3-pointer with 12:55 remaining in the first half. The margin went to 20 on a Sabonis’ three-point play with 6:33 left. Wiltjer’s sixth 3-pointer pushed Gonzaga’s lead to 44-15 with 2:50 left. Santa Clara outscored the Zags 7-2 to cut the deficit to 24 at half.
“One of our best defensive (efforts) all year, one through five, communicating, flying around, playing unselfishly, making shots, guys were running,” senior guard Eric McClellan said of the opening half. “That’s how you want to play.”
The Zags couldn’t sustain the momentum in the second half. They led by 29 with just under 15 minutes left but Santa Clara’s 14-2 run cut GU’s lead to 60-43. The Broncos pulled within 14 with just over 3 minutes remaining but Wiltjer and Sabonis combined to make five free throws to restore an 18-point margin.
“We were kind of selfish on the defensive end (in the second half) by not talking, communicating and sticking to the plan,” McClellan said.
Santa Clara held a whopping 23-2 edge in points off turnovers – 16 points in the closing half – and a 32-16 advantage in paint points. Wiltjer and Perkins each committed five turnovers.
“We just have to quit turning the ball over like that,” Few said. “It comes all across the board, bigs turn it over, smalls turn it over so it’s hard to predict where it’s going to come from.”
The Zags had just eight second-half field goals but they made 17 of 21 free throws. GU dominated the boards 48-30.
“We have to continue to play confidently,” Wiltjer said. “If we do mess up, we have to keep our heads up. Right now we get down on ourselves and starting thinking a little too much. We still haven’t put together a full 40 minutes. Once we do that, it’s going to be scary.”
Dranginis did a solid job defensively on Jared Brownridge, who scored 15 points, well below his 19.4 average. Brownridge, who had 26 in the first meeting with Gonzaga, was 5 of 12 from the field.
“I didn’t play very well against him at their place,” Dranginis said. “I was a little motivated, I think that helped me a lot.”
The Broncos made just 36.5 percent of their shots, 5 of 21 beyond the 3-point arc. Gonzaga finished at 45 percent, 13 of 26 on 3-pointers.
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