It was a Senior Night that Killian Tillie and 6,000 fans jammed inside the McCarthey Athletic Center will never forget.
Tillie battled his emotions when his parents joined him on the court prior to Saturday’s game against Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga’s senior forward had a warm embrace for former teammate Rui Hachimura, who made a surprise visit since his Washington Wizards were on the West Coast for a Sunday game against Golden State.
Tillie’s emotions were powerless to stop the waterworks when senior manager Mac Graff, who has been in a wheelchair since falling out of a hunting stand in high school, walked onto the court with assistance of a walker and leg braces during pregame festivities.
And the game, well, that was memorable, too.
Filip Petrusev scored 27 points, Corey Kispert had 20 and Admon Gilder and Joel Ayayi hit clutch shots late as the third-ranked Bulldogs held off Saint Mary’s 86-76 in front of the loudest crowd of the season.
“I tried not to show it, but it was very emotional,” said Tillie, who chipped in 13 points, four assists and four rebounds. “Even at the beginning, I tried to stay focused on the game, and then I saw my parents on the court and all the fans. And then Mac walking in. Everything was amazing.”
Gonzaga (29-2, 15-1 WCC) wrapped up the regular season in style, but it was pushed from start to finish by the rival Gaels, who sent a message early this wasn’t going to be a repeat of GU’s 90-60 beatdown in Moraga, California, three weeks ago.
The Gaels (24-7, 11-5) looked like a different team in the rematch. Led by dynamic senior guard Jordan Ford, the Gaels had no problems solving Gonzaga’s defense in the first 14 minutes.
Saint Mary’s led most of the first half as Ford piled up 12 points and two assists. The Zags matched SMC’s hot shooting, but still trailed for nearly 11 minutes of the opening half.
“Jordan was fantastic,” Zags coach Mark Few said of Ford, who finished with 28 points. “We couldn’t find a way to slow him down. He was beating us to the basket, stepping back and hitting 3s. I don’t know that we ever quite solved that one.”
True, but as the game wore on, Saint Mary’s had problems stopping multiple Zags, in particular Petrusev, Kispert, Gilder and Ayayi.
Petrusev scored six of GU’s last eight points of the half as the Zags pulled even at 34 at the break.
Kispert, who made 4 of 5 3-pointers, was at his best when the Zags needed it the most. His baskets came at timely moments throughout, including an eight-point barrage in a 10-0 spurt that put Gonzaga ahead 52-42 with 13:20 remaining.
Ryan Woolridge’s layup was the other basket in that surge. It prompted Gonzaga president Thayne McCulloh to rise from his seat several rows behind the Zags’ bench and wave his arms, exhorting fans to make more noise.
“We all knew those guys weren’t going to lay down,” Kispert said. “They came out a completely different team. We stayed the course, and things started opening up and we made runs.”
Petrusev kept Gonzaga’s offense rolling. The 6-foot-11 forward maneuvered inside for a bucket, two free throws and added a pair of three-point plays to boost GU’s lead to 71-59.
“They weren’t going to let us win by 30 again,” said Petrusev, who made 8 of 12 shots and 11 of 13 free throws. “They were more physical in all the positions (than the first meeting), shrinking a little bit in the first half and making us take tough shots.
“But in the second half, we embraced the physicality and the other things came easier with that.”
The Gaels rallied within five on two occasions in the final 4:10. Gilder barely beat the shot clock with a tough bank shot to give Gonzaga a seven-point lead.
Malik Fitts cut it to five with a dunk, but Gilder drove inside and finished and Ayayi drilled a 3-pointer to boost the Zags’ lead to 80-72 with 1:55 remaining.
The Zags poured in 52 second-half points. They hit 65.5% of their field-goal attempts, including 5 of 6 3-pointers.
Gonzaga shot 59.3% overall while the Gaels finished at 49.2%.
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