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TV Take: Tale of two halves for Gonzaga in West Coast Conference-opening victory at Portland

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 2, 2020

You had to wonder what those still-awake college basketball fans east of the Rockies thought when Thursday night’s Gonzaga halftime score flashed across their screen.

With the top-ranked Zags trailing by seven to the Portland Pilots, maybe they thought it was a typo. Or they were dreaming. If they switched to the NBC Sports NW broadcast, carried by KHQ in Spokane, they heard veteran play-by-play voice Barry Tompkins and former San Francisco Dons – from some 40 years ago – coach Dan Belluomini describe a completely different second half.

The Zags roared back, fueled by an explosive run out of the locker room, outscored Portland by 20 after intermission and won their West Coast Conference opener 85-72 at the Chiles Center.

What they saw …

• The game began just like Belluomini and Tompkins expected, with Gonzaga jumping out to an 11-point lead less than 6 minutes in.

“That’s just Gonzaga being Gonzaga,” is how Tompkins described it.

But what happened from that point to the end of the half was definitely not that.

The Pilots, who have lost to the likes of Jackson State and Cal State Northridge at home, looked like the better team on both ends for the next 14 minutes.

They shot 54.5% from the field – almost 10 percentage points better than their season average – and held the Zags (15-1) to 46.7%. Gonzaga, which has the most efficient offense in the nation, hit just 2 of 10 3-point attempts and missed more than half of its 11 free throws.

As the Pilots (8-8) pulled ahead, the crowd pulled its weight as well, leading Belluomini and Tompkins to start using words like “believe” and “energy” when describing the home team.

• The conversation at halftime included a discussion of the importance of a good start for both teams.

“It is critical, certainly, for Portland if you’re going to pull the upset,” Belluomini said of the early part of the second half, before mentioning he felt the Zags were primed to take off.

“I think the first few minutes of the second half are going to be interesting,” Tompkins said.

They were.

The Zags went on a 11-0 run (it reached 16-0), though it could have been even more as Admon Gilder extended their free-throw woes, missing two after a flagrant one foul call on Isaiah White. (The Pilots had another flagrant one just a couple of minutes later.)

After a Killian Tillie dunk gave GU a 50-47 lead, Tompkins said: “This is what they do. That’s why they are No. 1 in the country.”

“Here’s the deal,” Belluomini said. “The defense for Gonzaga has really picked up in the second half.”

What we saw …

• What happened in the first half? On the defensive end, a focus-challenged Gonzaga struggled to deal with dribble penetration. It came from many sources, including diminutive point guard Chase Adams and second-leading scorer JoJo Walker, who came off the bench to score 10 points, hitting three acrobatic shots. He finished with 15 points.

One was so acrobatic – and unexpected – it drew comparisons to Steph Curry from the broadcast crew. As the game paused with a timeout, the cameras caught former Portland State head coach Tyler Geving, a UP assistant, rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders.

The Zags, who also weren’t as sharp as usual with their ball-screen defense, were even more out of sorts on the offensive end as the statistics showed.

The key matchup …

White is the Pilots’ leading scorer. His play in this one mirrored Portland’s.

The senior guard had eight points in the first half. In the second half, he didn’t score until the final 5 minutes. He ended with 12 points.

One the other side Tillie, who had little to do with guarding White (until the guard got to the rim, which he did often early), was out of sorts before halftime. How much? He was 1 of 4 from the field, with all three misses coming from beyond the arc.

The second half he was 8 of 12, hitting two 3-pointers. He finished with 22 points.

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