Geno Crandall forced a Santa Clara turnover, Killian Tillie scooped up the loose ball and drove the length of the court for a layup with a defender in pursuit.
They added depth to the rotation and spread out the minutes in the frontcourt and backcourt. A full house of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center turned up the volume when either one made an impactful play.
It didn’t take anything away from what forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have been doing most of the season. The pair combined for 31 points in the opening half as No. 7 Gonzaga cruised to a 91-48 victory Saturday in their West Coast Conference opener Saturday.
Tillie and Crandall certainly have some rust to shake off – Tillie fouled out in just 9 minutes – but they elevated the energy level of their teammates and the fans.
“They all stood up for Geno and me (when they entered with 14:23 left in the first half), I just loved it,” Tillie said. “It’s been a long time. It was good to have fun with the guys.”
The crowd roared when Tillie buried his first 3-pointer and when Crandall made a steal and acrobatic finish at the other end.
“It’s good to see our brothers back out there to provide a spark for us,” point guard Josh Perkins said. “You never want to see your boys going through (injuries). We’ve been playing for them the whole year, but now that they’re with us it’s a full team. We’re ready to go get it.”
The Zags (14-2) have been operating with limited numbers and key players at times had to conserve energy in order to log heavy minutes in tight games. Tillie’s and Crandall’s return alleviates that problem.
“Tills was pressing a little bit, but that’s fine. We all know how good of a player he is,” coach Mark Few said. “We got a lot of minutes (15) out of Geno, and that helps. He kind of changes the game when he comes in. Having Killian, he can absorb fouls and allows Rui and BC (Clarke) to play a little harder because they know they have somebody coming for them.”
The Broncos (9-7, 1-1 WCC) came in with a six-game winning streak but they couldn’t match up with Gonzaga’s bigs. Hachimura got started early with a putback, a drive around Guglielmo Caruso for a reserve layup, a pair of free throws and a 3-footer in the first 3 minutes and 30 seconds.
The Broncos tried several defenders on Hachimura, but he still scored 12 of Gonzaga’s first 20 points and had 18 by intermission.
Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke celebrates his dunk after an assist from teammate Josh Perkins against Santa Clara forwards Henrik Jadersten (3) and Josh Martin, Saturday, Jan. 5. 2019, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
“I want him aggressive 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Few said. “We found him early and it took him a while to get going, that’s why I subbed for him (with Tillie), but then he figured it out. He was aggressive on the defensive end as well.”
Clarke was equally as effective as Hachimura, especially when one adds in his work at the defensive end. Tahj Eaddy, who averages 16.7 points and had 30 points in a win over San Diego on Thursday, drove inside on SCU’s first possession and has his shot swatted away by Clarke.
Later in the half, Eaddy raced into the lane and Clarke briefly pinned his shot against the glass. Eaddy committed four turnovers and finished with 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
Clarke worked over the Broncos inside by making 5 of 6 shots and scoring 13 points in the opening half, which ended with the Zags comfortably in front 50-27.
“That’s something (lane production) we’re always going to try to get,” said Clarke, who finished with five of GU’s nine blocks, two shy of the single-game team record. “It’s really hard to beat us when we have a good inside presence on offense and defense.”
The Zags owned the paint, outscoring Santa Clara 48-20 in the lane.
Hachimura (25) and Clarke (16) were the only players in double figures, but 10 other Zags scored at least two points. It was the first game this season the Zags didn’t have at least four in double digits. They’ve had three in double figures in 86 of the previous 91 games.
Gonzaga, which entertains Pacific on Thursday and visits San Francisco on Saturday, has won its WCC opener 23 consecutive seasons.
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