SALT LAKE CITY – Zach Norvell Jr. threaded a bounce pass to a streaking Killian Tillie, who only had one goal: he was going to dunk that ball.
With the pain of a stress fracture and a partially torn plantar fascia in the back of his mind and the thought of having missed 22 of the Zags’ 34 games this season, Tillie took flight and flushed his first dunk of the season over two Fairleigh Dickinson defenders.
The bench went berserk as Tillie jogged down the court laughing, a wide smile plastered across his face.
“It feels great,” Tillie said after Gonzaga’s 87-49 dismantling of the Knights on Thursday. “Being back with my teammates is really fun. They did a great job playing with me. I think I did a great job playing with them. I think it was a pretty good night tonight, yeah.”
Brandon Clarke – Gonzaga’s renowned dunker – had been waiting all season to see the springy Frenchman show off his hops. The San Jose State transfer had yet to see Tillie dunk in a game.
“That was really crazy,” Clarke said. “I don’t think he’s had a dunk yet this season, and I’ve been waiting on it personally. And that was one crazy dunk; it was over two guys. That shows how bouncy he is, and plus he can shoot 3s too, floaters too.”
When the second injury sidelined Tillie against San Francisco at home six weeks ago, head coach Mark Few expressed his disappointment with the continuous spell of bad luck for the junior forward. But having Tillie back at his disposal in the NCAA Tournament forced a smile from Few.
“Just an absolute incredible amount of joy and satisfaction to see somebody that worked so hard, had such a great year last year for us … he did a great job staying positive,” Few said. “He had a bad run of luck there. It’s awesome to see – and you guys can all see if you’ve forgot, I mean, he’s a hell of a player.”
His 17 points was a season high. He finished 7 for 8 from the floor and buried both his 3-point attempts.
While the dunk was the oft-discussed play in the locker room, the more impressive feat was his overall play – and how long he played.
Tillie was on the court for 18 minutes, his longest time on the court in nearly two months. After his second foot injury, he had to keep his conditioning up without hurting his rehab.
“The focus for me and for him was trying to make sure the rest of the body was finely tuned while the foot was healing, so that when he got back, he could hit the ground running,” head athletic trainer Josh Therrien said.
Initially, there was no indication how long Tillie would be out. The official team release said indefinitely, which essentially means for an unspecific period of time. The obvious hope was to see Tillie on the floor in the postseason, but his status was one big question mark.
“It was definitely on the table, but it wasn’t 100 percent slam-dunk that he was going to be able to play and be this effective at this point in the tournament,” Therrien said.
“It was kind of a day-to-day thing, really. There are a lot of different factors that go into that plantar fascia on the foot. So where his was torn at, we knew we had a good shot at getting him back once we got those scans back. We were pretty aggressive with some of the treatments we did with our doctors.”
Tillie looked explosive on Thursday, but most plantar fascia injuries require some sort of custom arch support.
He had to adjust the height of his shoes and added a little insert to help hold his arch in place, along with some athletic tape to wrap it all up.
“He’s got a custom tape job on there that we have trial-and-errored and worked on the last few weeks,” Therrien said. “We want to put as much on there as possible without limiting (his bounciness).”
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