After three consecutive frustrating Senior Nights, Gonzaga’s latest edition Saturday was finally going as scripted.
It began with rousing pregame introductions of seniors Brian Pete, Silas Melson and Johnathan Williams, whose dad, Johnny, led the cheers by holding up three fingers in honor of his son’s “J3” nickname.
A soulful rendition of the national anthem followed, with Gonzaga players fist-bumping singer Andre Montgomery and inviting him into their pregame circle for an impromptu hype session.
And then Gonzaga took it to Pepperdine. For 15 minutes. After that, the last-place Waves did their best to replicate Senior Night spoilers BYU in 2017 and 2015 and Saint Mary’s in 2016, pushing the ninth-ranked Zags deep into the second half.
Just when it looked like another Senior Night might be heading in the wrong direction, the Zags found their missing defense and tagged the Waves with dunks and 3-pointers at the other end.
Gonzaga’s closing kick fueled a hard-fought 81-67 victory in front of an appreciative audience of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center. The victory keeps Gonzaga (25-4, 15-1 WCC) alone in first place heading into next week’s road trip to San Diego and BYU.
The Zags reached 25 wins for the 11th consecutive season. Only Kansas (12) has a longer active streak.
“We had bouts we were struggling to stop them and bouts where we were struggling to score ourselves,” coach Mark Few said. “But in the end, we were really solid and made plays at both ends.”
Williams, fittingly, had a big night in his last home game, finishing with 18 points and 12 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double. Melson added nine points and three assists and Pete took advantage of his first start by making a baseline runner before exiting.
Gonzaga had all four classes covered in this one. Williams was the best player on the floor. Junior Josh Perkins had 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Sophomore Killian Tillie had 15 points and six boards and freshman Zach Norvell Jr. chipped in 13 points and four assists.
“We ended that three-year streak,” Perkins said. “That team played really well. It feels good to pull that one out. We earned that one.”
The Waves (4-24, 1-15) didn’t go quietly. They cut a 54-40 deficit to 66-64 on Trae Berhow’s layup with 7:35 left. Gonzaga was scoring at an impressive rate but unable to stop the Waves, and point guard Colbey Ross in particular, from doing the same.
Gonzaga huddled during a timeout and promptly scored the next 11 points and 15 of the final 18.
“We needed to win this game,” Williams said of the team’s mindset in the closing stretch. “And basically we started getting stops and rebounds.”
Tillie buried a 3-pointer and then took a pass on the wing with time dwindling on the shot clock. Williams motioned at Tillie to go to the rim. Tillie didn’t see Williams’ gesture but drove anyway, drawing a defender and dishing to Williams for a dunk.
A few minutes later, the two did the same thing in reverse order. Norvell dropped a pass to a cutting Williams for another dunk and Tillie drained another 3 to put GU up 77-64.
“They were helping a lot,” Williams said. “I was just trying to move to open areas.”
Williams rejected Berhow’s shot with the Zags protecting a seven-point lead.
Ross, who finished with 21 points, many on crafty drives and finishes, came up empty on a couple of shots, one swatted by Tillie, before hitting a 3-pointer after the issue had been decided.
“Down the stretch we were assertive, proactive (on defense),” Few said. “We were reactive for stretches of the first and second half, and Pepperdine did a good job of stinging us when we were.”
The Zags’ ninth win in a row didn’t come as easily as expected, but it was a relief after the last three Senior Night outcomes.
“It meant a lot,” Melson said. “I already touched on Pete and what he’s been through, coming from a manager to a walk-on. Johnathan and I have a really tight relationship. To experience Senior Night with him, and see his dad all happy down there, it’s a proud moment.”
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