LAS VEGAS – Joel Ayayi sported a fashionable ensemble: West Coast Conference Tournament championship hat and T-shirt, net draped around his neck and MVP trophy in his hands.
Hidden beneath the new attire was deep personal satisfaction and emotional recollections of his three-year journey as a Zag.
“I’m so thankful,” the sophomore guard beamed shortly after Gonzaga thumped Saint Mary’s 84-66 in Tuesday’s championship game. “It’s a lot of emotions. It wasn’t always easy, but I just stuck with it. Even this year, a lot of ups and downs, but I told myself I’d be ready.
“A lot of effort, a lot of work, a lot of hours. It always pays off. Hard work always pays off. This is proof.”
Ayayi would know. He was a fresh-faced 17-year-old when he arrived at Gonzaga from his native France. The coaching staff knew Ayayi would need time to mature physically and adapt to the collegiate game.
Ayayi slowly added muscle and savvy to his game in practice and individual workouts during his redshirt year. He’s long been a mainstay on French youth national teams, making the all-tournament team at the 2018 FIBA U18 European Championships.
He returned to Gonzaga for his redshirt freshman season only to be stuck in line behind a guard/wing crew of Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones and Greg Foster Jr.
Ayayi played just 128 minutes last season, but he didn’t stop working. He was even better on France’s U19 team last summer, pouring in 33 points in a narrow loss to teammate Filip Petrusev and Serbia at the FIBA U19 World Cup.
Ayayi’s time arrived this season, even though Gonzaga added a pair of grad transfer guards in Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder. Ayayi moved into the starting lineup in early December and has become a versatile contributor.
Ayayi weathered a rough patch late in the regular season with a strong second half in Gonzaga’s victory over Saint Mary’s in the regular-season finale. He followed that up with a string of clutch plays in Monday’s semifinal win over San Francisco.
“He’s got quite a belief in himself,” coach Mark Few said. “That usually pays dividends late in games.”
Ayayi locked up the tournament MVP award with 17 points and seven rebounds against the Gaels.
“That was great, man, it was awesome,” said Ayayi’s countryman Killian Tillie, who took home MVP honors as a sophomore. “He deserves it a lot. It was a great moment for him.”
Freshman Drew Timme, and Gonzaga’s bigs in general, worked over the Gaels’ smaller frontcourt in three meetings. That was evident again Tuesday as Timme scored 17 points, Tillie added nine and Petrusev finished with 10 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high five assists.
“We don’t have the size,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “They kept bringing it down in the post and got us in foul trouble early. That was the story of the game.”
Timme scored nine of his 15 first-half points in the final 3 minutes as GU erased a six-point deficit to take a 42-41 edge.
“It was just taking what the defense gave us,” said Timme, who joined Petrusev and Ayayi on the all-tournament team. “It just happened to be me in that stretch. Coach called my number and asked me to step up and I’m glad I did it.”
Timme scored a season-high 20 points in GU’s 90-60 road win over the Gaels last month.
“He was ready for one of these,” Few said. “He did a great job of just hanging with us. I talked to him about it (earlier Tuesday) afternoon.”
Timme said his favorite postgame moment was seeing his mom.
“I was happy she was able to see that and especially just to go to hug her after the game,” Timme said. “She’s helped me so much.”
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