LAS VEGAS – For all of Gonzaga’s success in the WCC Tournament, first-round matchups have often been as hard on the Zags as the later rounds.
That was the scene Saturday at Orleans Arena when the top-seeded Zags led No. 8 Loyola Marymount by just three midway through the second half.
It had the feel of last March when fourth-ranked Gonzaga led Pacific by two at half, or the hard-fought 81-72 win over San Francisco in 2015 or David Stockton’s twisting layup in the closing seconds of a 77-75 escape against Santa Clara in 2014. Perhaps a better example: No. 1-ranked GU led LMU by just one at half before rolling to a 66-48 victory in 2013.
The Zags found their way Saturday by making nearly every shot they attempted in the second half – the school record of 80 percent for a half was in jeopardy until a missed 3-pointer by a reserve with 46 seconds remaining – and grabbing nearly every rebound.
It added up to an 83-69 victory over the determined Lions that wasn’t as easy as the final score indicated, but moved Gonzaga (28-4) into the semifinals Monday against San Francisco. GU has won 15 straight WCC Tournament games.
“We’ve found (first-round games) are very tough,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “You look across the landscape of college basketball and they’ve pretty much all been similar to this. I thought Loyola Marymount really brought it.”
And Gonzaga didn’t, at least in the first half. The Lions outworked GU for loose balls, had the better of it on the offensive glass and hounded the Zags into seven quick turnovers.
“The first 30 minutes we were not playing hard. They were taking the ball from us,” sophomore forward Killian Tillie said. “We weren’t moving the ball. The last 10 we were playing harder and more aggressively.”
Gonzaga put on a shooting clinic in the second half. The Zags were at 84 percent from the field in the latter stages and it wasn’t all layups and dunks, though they had plenty of each of those.
The Zags made 7 of 10 beyond the arc, and one of the misses came in the final minute. Tillie (3 of 3) and Zach Norvell Jr. (3 of 4) did nearly all of the damage. Silas Melson chipped in a big triple to put Gonzaga up 51-45.
The Zags made everything but their free throws (11 of 22).
GU couldn’t shake the Lions (11-20) because James Batemon wouldn’t allow it. The junior point guard was unstoppable at times with his 3-point range and fearless drives into the lane that netted points, free throws and fouls on the Zags’ guard line.
Batemon scored 20 of his 27 points in the first 16 minutes of the second half. The Zags had success late when they put 6-foot-8 Rui Hachimura on Batemon.
The Zags finally pulled away with a 10-0 spurt that created a 74-59 lead. Tillie and Norvell had 3s and Josh Perkins fed Johnathan Williams for one of the senior forward’s five dunks.
“It took us a while to adjust to the physicality, especially early on the offensive end in the first half,” Few said. “In the second half Batemon got going and he was a handful. But we were really good at the offensive end, and that’s kind of what won the game for us.”
If the offense won the game, rebounding came in a close second. Gonzaga won the boards, 20-8, in second half.
“Obviously rebounding became the difference in the game,” Lions coach Mike Dunlap said. “It’s that simple. They got a lot of easy baskets on second shots.”
LMU led early, even though it was just 5 of 21 from the field, by capitalizing on Gonzaga turnovers and collecting five offensive rebounds.
Tillie committed three early turnovers – Gonzaga had 10 by intermission – but he heated up in the final 6 minutes. It started with a putback of a Williams miss and then a pair of spot-up 3-pointers near the top of the circle, both on second-chance opportunities.
Tillie’s best play came when he retrieved a loose ball, fended off a couple of Lions and fired a pass from his backside to Williams for a dunk.
LMU rattled off seven straight points before a Corey Kispert 3-pointer and Tillie’s dunk gave Gonzaga a 29-28 halftime lead.
Tillie’s hot shooting continued in the second half.
“I was feeling great,” Tillie said. “The last couple months have been great, so I just keep taking my shots and they went in.”
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