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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie threw himself a birthday bash, San Francisco had a front-row seat

UPDATED: Mon., March 5, 2018

LAS VEGAS – Happy birthday? Doesn’t begin to cover it.

Killian Tillie turned 20 on Monday, which in his native France is not exactly a milestone or even one step closer to being legal for the major vices: drinking and voting.

“You can do it all at 18,” he said, “so no big deal.”

But on his 20th here at the Orleans Arena, he did become very much eligible for the Most Outstanding Player award at the West Coast Conference basketball tournament, unless perhaps Brigham Young beats the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Tuesday’s championship game.

Which itself may require that the Cougars have Tillie kidnapped, arrested or sealed into his hotel room with Gorilla Glue ©, lead sponsor and official stickum of this event.

The 88-60 beatdown the Bulldogs put on San Francisco in Monday’s semifinals – stamping their hands for a 21st straight WCC title game – was notable for an efficiency on both ends of the floor that was not so much ruthless as it was joyous. And ever more so with every 3-pointer that Tillie let fly.

Because every one of them went in.

In fact, every 3 he’s attempted in this building in the past few days has found net – 10 of 10, the complete run actually 11 if you count his make in his last attempt from the regular-season finale at BYU. It was his 3 that finally broke the Zags free from Loyola Marymount in the quarterfinals Saturday, and two of them a couple of minutes apart early on against USF set the tone for these proceedings.

It’s hard to appreciate just how demoralizing this was for the Dons – or really would be to anyone who has to contend with the package that is Killian Tillie.

“I was joking with him in the locker room,” said teammate Corey Kispert. “I’m talking about what the other team’s scouting report says about him: 6-foot-10 post who can shoot 3s and drive to his left and drive to his right and shoot the floater and dunk it on you, pass and dribble. What else is there?”

This has been hinted at ever since the leggy Frenchman worked his way into the GU rotation as a freshman, and more so on his big nights this season – the Creighton game comes to mind. In the first 3 1/2 minutes Monday night, he one-handed an alley-oop pass from Josh Perkins through the hoop while being fouled, made a floater in the key and drilled his first 3.

The Dons would have gone back to the drawing board, except Tillie had already tagged it with spray paint.

His accomplices made USF’s job that much more difficult: Perkins directing traffic – all eight of his assists were on Tillie buckets – and Johnathan Williams ruling the glass and Zach Norvell Jr. firing away from 3 himself and Rui Hachimura doing his Rui thing.

But first LMU and now USF have had no answer for Tillie.

“They’re struggling on rotations on the screens, so I’m popping up and Josh is always looking for me,” Tillie said. “They’re having a hard time guarding that. I just try to take good shots and no bad shots.”

Right now, there are no bad shots.

Tillie has 50 points in two tournament games. That isn’t going to threaten the tournament record – shout out to that Gonzaga original, John Rillie – and he insisted that “I’ve never been a crazy good shooter.” But his timing, anyway, has been a revelation.

“Maybe he’s just maturing at his own pace,” said Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “He’s always been a winner, always impacted games naturally. I think he’s always been an instinctual player and maybe hasn’t always made decisions to manipulate the game.

“He’s just playing and there’s a beauty to it. But what I’ve really been on him about as he matures as a player is taking his spontaneity and combining it with a little forethought and take advantage of his strength. It’s all coming together.”

And quickly. Tillie has already showed up on some mock draft boards and, naturally, there will be much speculation about both his and Hachimura’s futures.

“No idea,” Tillie said Monday. “We’ll see at the end of the season and how it looks for next year, too.”

On Sunday, the Zags took an outing to Top Golf to celebrate Tillie’s birthday and that of countryman and teammate Joel Ayayi, who shares it. Monday’s outing seemed just as loose, and even more fun.

“I’ve been mad at him all year when I give it to him and he doesn’t shoot the ball,” said Perkins. “I’m like, ‘Yo, Killian – please shoot the ball.’ He’s finally letting it fly – and it’s a good time.

“He’d better do it tomorrow, too. That’s when it matters.”

Championship night. A real milestone.

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