GU finishes perfect run through WCC

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LAST WEEK

Well, the numbers say it all.

Or almost all.

There’s a bit of nitpicking to be done, but that will come prior to the NCAA tournament.

Back to those mind-boggling numbers …

By dispatching Pacific 86-66 in Stockton (yawn) and then fighting off a spirited charge by Saint Mary’s under difficult circumstances in tiny McKeon Pavilion to win 69-55, the Zags finished their WCC regular season 16-0 — amazingly, their first perfect WCC record since 2013.

But these Zags did it in dominant fashion — winning every game by double digits and with an average margin of victory that touched 27 points per game.

That’s just kicking rear ends, and it’s the biggest conference mismatch since records on such things have been kept since 1998.

The Zags have now won 20 straight, the longest Division I streak in the nation, and 31 consecutive conference road games — which is just obscene.

In that 20-game run, the Zags have outscored opponents by 29.9 points per game.

GONZAGA has done it by outrunning teams that wanted to play up-tempo, and grinding down teams that tried to take the air out of the ball.

They also passed another test, taking some decent opponents’ best shots on the road — San Francisco, Loyola Marymount, San Diego and now Saint Mary’s — and surviving each in slightly different ways.

Yep, we just KNEW that Saint Mary’s (No. 2 seed in the WCC tournament) would be a rough proposition after losing by 48 in Spokane.

The Gaels were all of that, matching Gonzaga bucket for bucket in a slow-down, half-court battle for about 30 minutes.

Saint Mary’s inadvertently made things even tougher by overselling the little gym, which seats 3,500.

Thus the place was incredibly hot and humid, which affected the playing floor. Several Zags slipped and fell — including Josh Perkins, who managed to toss in a shot from the lane just before he hit the seat of his pants.

Saint Mary’s was primed for a final 10-minute dash to an upset, when …

Gonzaga happened.

THE ZAGS whipped off a 17-0 run to turn a tight 47-44 battle into a 64-44 walk in one steamy hot park.

“Our defense got us going, which it always does,” said Brandon Clarke, who blocked two straight shots from Gaels star guard Jordan Ford (19 points) to get the party rolling.

Saint Mary’s (20-11, 11-5 WCC) went 7½ minutes between field goals.

Perkins scored and Zach Norvell Jr., who had an off night with just 6 points, nevertheless hit two big buckets in the lane.

Clarke naturally threw down a couple of emphatic jams.

Saint Mary’s missed three shots (and two free throws), and turned the ball over three times in that Gonzaga run, and the unbeaten regular season was in the books.

Told that Saint Mary’s scored just 12 points in the first 18 minutes of the second half, Clarke responded: “That’s crazy!”

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett was philosophical about the sudden collapse.

“(Gonzaga) is probably the best team I’ve ever coached against,” he said. “Certainly one of the best. Maybe Gonzaga two years ago, I don’t know.

“We played well, got good shots for a long time, made the right decisions — but they wear you down. They’re so athletic, they keep coming, and you have to work for every good shot.

“They just wear you out, mentally as well as physically.

“You miss shots, they’re out in transition. You turn it over, they’re off and you’re just dead.”

FORD OFFERED a thought on the mental part.

“Clarke is such a huge factor,” he said. “He was out in foul trouble in the first half (nearly eight minutes), but in the second half, it seemed like he got a hand to several shots.

“And you’re always thinking that he’s there, so that changes shots, too.”

Bennett had some advice for coaches preparing to face Gonzaga in the upcoming WCC tournament.

“Try to stay as close as you can for as long as you can,” Bennett said with a smile.

We talked about Gonzaga winning its tougher games in different ways — with defense being the single constant.

Points against Saint Mary’s were unusually distributed with Perkins potting 19, Rui Hachimura 17 and Clarke 15 despite his long first-half absence.

And the Zags hit the close-out button despite being dismal from long distance.

They hit just 2 of 14 of their 3-ball attempts, and those makes came from Hachimura and Geno Crandall — not the two guys you’d pick in your office pool.

“It came down to defense, tightening up some things,” said Coach Mark Few. “Every time we missed an assignment in the first half, Saint Mary’s made us pay.

“We got a lot of that straightened out in the second half.”

They got Clarke back in the ballgame, too.

No small adjustment, that one.

THE STORY

Your role …

Get some extra rest before we arrive at tournament time.

It seems bizarre, but the Zags will not play for a stretch of nine days until the WCC tournament semifinals in Las Vegas next Monday evening.

And that’s it for this week, folks.

Now then, stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but Killian Tillie is working like crazy in an attempt to rejoin the Zags before the season runs out on him.

Most Gonzaga fans know that Tillie suffered a broken ankle in preseason, fought his way back, played nine games and then suffered a partial tear of a plantar fascia tendon in the same right foot on which he’d had the broken ankle.

Tillie hauled out the same boot and crutches he’d used for the ankle, kept weight off the foot as long as possible, and went back to a similar pool, treadmill and stationary bike regime that he’d endured so recently.

“A lot of the bike,” he joked in the locker room following the Zags’ win over Saint Mary’s. “I did the Tour de France on the bike.”

NOW WHAT, you may be asking, was Tillie doing in that locker room?

The answer: He wasn’t around just for the good company.

Tillie participated in pregame drills with his teammates prior to the Pacific and Saint Mary’s games on this recent road trip. He went a little harder the second time, testing his foot and seeing what he can do on it.

Tillie is aiming for the WCC tournament, where he shot the lights out a year ago by going 13 of 14 from 3-ball country.

If not that, then maybe the NCAA tournament.

It isn’t a matter of whether Tillie can get out there and play — it’s about having enough confidence, without a second thought, to do what comes naturally.

And then there’s the issue of game time.

Tillie has only played nine games this season, and at first he was content to settle for outside shots.

A kick in the rear from Few got him back to mixing it up under the basket, and ironically, he was in tight — dropping in a soft hook against San Francisco on Feb. 7 — when he landed awkwardly.

So how much use can a little-used, certainly rusty Tillie be in either tournament coming up?

TO TAKE the best first, even at three-quarter speed and agility, this future NBA player can give Clarke and Hachimura some rest.

Since Clarke is prone to foul trouble, that becomes even more of a little bonus for Few.

Freshman Filip Petrusev has had terrible problems on defense this season, and Few is naturally nervous to use him in crucial situations.

There will be a time, but this isn’t it.

So having a savvy 6-10 player who knows all the Gonzaga systems and switches waiting on the bench is no bad thing.

The down side is obvious: Tillie is miles from game shape.

He wasn’t even 100 percent after nine games in his first return, so how hard can he go?

That might not be an issue in the WCC event, which the Zags would be favored to win without him, but in the NCAA tournament?

Needless to say, if Tillie can get some game time in the WCC tournament and get the feel of things again, he’d be in much better shape to help in spots — maybe crucial spots — at the Big Dance.

Once again, we have to wait and see.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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