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Gonzaga Basketball

Analysis: Late 3s by Killian Tillie, Joel Ayayi help Gonzaga hold off Washington in crunch time

Gonzaga's Killian Tillie (33), Joel Ayayi (11) and Drew Timme celebrates with teammates after beating Washington in an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Seattle. Gonzaga won 83-76. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

SEATTLE – Killian Tillie sat near his locker inside Alaska Airlines Arena, ice bags strapped to his knees, and answered questions from a few reporters.

Media duties complete, Tillie opened the locker room doors and took a step or two before a voice caught his attention.

“Hey, great shot,” a Washington team official said without breaking stride in the hallway. Tillie politely thanked the gentleman.

Tillie’s 29-footer, which he basically made look routine, triggered a series of clutch plays by No. 9 Gonzaga in the final three minutes that carried the Zags past No. 22 Washington 83-76 on Sunday in front of a full house of 9,268.

Washington had just made its umpteenth run, slicing GU’s lead to 72-70 on Jaden McDaniels’ 3-pointer. The Zags responded again, which was the recurring theme of this tight, tense battle.

“I saw the shot clock going down, got a step back and tried to get an opening,” Tillie said. “It felt good, it was cash. I literally shot it normally. I didn’t push it.”

Washington (7-2) nearly matched Gonzaga (10-1) play for play down the stretch. Ryan Woolridge answered Nahziah Carter’s 3-pointer with a pair of a layups. Carter struck from deep again, trimming Gonzaga’s lead to 79-76.

Sophomore guard Joel Ayayi delivered the dagger, a 25-footer after missing a 3-pointer on Gonzaga’s previous possession.

“I did not shoot well today, but I felt really comfortable when I got the ball,” Ayayi said. “I felt really comfortable taking that shot and I feel like I worked on it, and bang.”

Gonzaga withstood every challenge Washington mounted, no easy task against a talented opponent feeding off a boisterous crowd. The Zags stretched their winning streak in the series to six; they’ve won 13 of the past 14 meetings.

“Unbelievable college basketball game,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “Big shot after big shot. We just made one or two more.

“At the start of the year with all the new faces we had, I wondered how we’d be in tough environments against good opponents like this. We really responded. We didn’t play perfect, but we played hard and pretty darn smart for the most part.”

As expected, the Huskies played zone defense most of the game, but the Zags had few issues finding open looks. Several Zags hinted earlier in the week that Tillie’s shooting and passing ability could make a difference, and that’s how it played out.

Tillie hit a pair of 3s en route to 15 points, but his biggest contribution was orchestrating the offense at times, dishing out a team-leading six assists against Washington’s lengthy 2-3 zone. Tillie fed Filip Petrusev and Drew Timme down low or hit guards and wings cutting down the baseline.

Tillie also had four steals, which helped GU create an 18-9 edge in points off turnovers.

“Tillie, in my opinion, is the best zone player you can have in college basketball,” Few said. “You can play him anywhere on the floor. He’s got an exceptional feel. He can shoot it out to 30 feet. He’s really adept at finding guys. He was the guy finding those guys along the baseline and getting them all those easy shots.”

Tillie had plenty of help as all five starters reached double figures. Petrusev had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Woolridge added 16 points and three steals. Corey Kispert had 15 points and Ayayi finished with 12 points, five boards and four assists.

Freshman forward Anton Watson, sidelined since the first minute of the Battle 4 Atlantis opener with a sprained ankle, played nearly nine minutes but did not score.

Washington freshman center Isaiah Stewart was a force inside with 21 points and 10 rebounds. He made 6 of 7 shots and 9 of 10 free throws. McDaniels had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Carter scored 15 points and Quade Green added 14 points and eight assists.

Woolridge’s layup put the Zags up for good with 17:14 left in the first half. The Zags held the lead for 37 minutes and 32 seconds, but the margin never reached double digits. Washington repeatedly cut the lead to one, two or three points, only to see the Zags rebuild their edge.

“We never let them come back, but it was never comfortable,” Ayayi said. “They’d always hit the right shot. We made a run, they made a run. We were resilient. We never broke.

“They play a really good zone. It’s really hard for us to get comfortable with our flow, but we did a great job with it and came up with a win.”