Gonzaga finally faced adversity, a serious challenge and a physical foe that didn’t back down.
The eighth-ranked Zags didn’t back down either. They were downright fiery at times with Ryan Woolridge engaging in a staredown with UT Arlington coach Chris Ogden and Killian Tillie showing plenty of emotion in his season debut.
Admon Gilder admitted to being pumped up by the huge ovation Tillie received when he was introduced as a starter. Gilder, always cool on the court, teamed up with fellow seniors Woolridge and Tillie to guide Gonzaga to a hard-fought 72-66 victory Tuesday in front of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The Zags (5-0) trailed most of the first half and experienced all sorts of peaks and valleys, but they probably wouldn’t have maintained their unbeaten record without the contribution of the only three seniors on their roster.
Woolridge had 19 points and nine rebounds. Tillie, in his first game following knee surgery, added 15 points and eight boards, and Gilder had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. The threesome combined for 31 of Gonzaga’s 44 second-half points to carry the Zags to the finish line.
“That’s what we do,” Gilder said. “It was Ryan’s day, Tillie’s day, my day. It was great to see the confidence Tillie played with and how he was being assertive. I’m happy for him.”
The Mavericks (2-3), who lost to GU by 34 points last season, trotted out a gimmicky defense, sagging off Woolridge and Anton Watson to turn the lane into a traffic jam. UTA tried similar tactics against Woolridge last year when he played for North Texas.
The strategy worked at times, curbing the Zags’ typical interior production, but Woolridge made them pay with three 3-pointers, including a big one that stopped a 6-0 UTA run and put Gonzaga on top 56-49 with 7:43 remaining.
Gonzaga pushed the lead to 63-50 before weathering three late 3s by the Mavericks.
“Coach (Mark Few) kept telling me to have confidence in my shot,’ said Woolridge, who was 5 of 5 on 3s entering the game. “He knows I can shoot it. Just let it go.”
After missing his first two 3s, Woolridge connected from distance with 40 seconds remaining in the first half. He added a layup in transition prior to the buzzer to give GU a 28-27 lead before a lengthy staredown with Ogden as he walked slowly to the locker room.
“I just feel like I had a little energy going and it just came out of me,” Woolridge said.
“He’s from Texas, our area. I’m sure he wanted to play well, but there was nothing,” Ogden said. “He stared us down, that’s part of it. He’s a kid, good player. He hit a big shot for them.”
The Zags stretched their lead to 44-37 on Gilder’s steal and two free throws. Tillie had two three-point plays and another inside basket as Gonzaga’s took a 65-53 advantage.
“We kind of got out of control midway through the second half,” said freshman forward Drew Timme, who had seven points and 10 rebounds. “Tillie did what a great player should do. He took the ball in his hands, hit a bucket and calmed us down.”
The Zags made it harder than it needed to be, making just 16 of 28 free throws in the second half, but their field-goal percentage climbed to 45% in the final 20 minutes after a frosty 34.3% in the opening half.
“Hey, we won,” Few said. “They’re keeping score and that’s the bottom line. Obviously, we faced some adversity probably for the first time all year and sometimes responded pretty well and other times not so well. Now we’ve got some stuff that I think got their attention and we can really teach to it.”
The Mavericks, who suffered through the worst shooting percentage (23.4) in school history in Sunday’s loss to Oregon, finished at nearly 40 percent overall and knocked down 11 3-pointers.
Forward Jabari Narcis, who entered the game 27.8% beyond the arc in his career, made all five of his 3-point attempts and led UT Arlington with 16 points. Woolridge said the Zags were aware of the big man’s shooting ability and it was highlighted on the scouting report.
“It was a great test for us,” Gilder said. “If you look at college basketball, Kentucky loses to Evansville, nothing against any low-major schools, but you have to be prepared every day because anybody can come get you.”
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