LAS VEGAS – This was about fist pumps, emotion and fire more than perfectly run plays.
Gonzaga had a lot more of the former than the latter, and it was enough to send the seventh-ranked Zags past San Francisco 81-72 in the WCC tournament Saturday in front of 8,537 at Orleans Arena.
The top-seeded Zags (30-2) will face No. 4 Pepperdine, a 50-47 winner over No. 5 San Diego, at 6 p.m. in Monday’s semifinals.
“We were just trying to get our energy,” said forward Kyle Wiltjer, who left with a left hip injury late in the second half and didn’t return. “We didn’t really execute that well but what made up for it was our energy and flying around and just getting that edge back.”
Przemek Karnowski had a physical edge inside from the opening tip. The Dons tried to cover the 7-foot-1 center 1-on-1 and he responded with a career-high 24 points.
Karnowski carried the Zags through an uneven first half with 13 of the team’s 27 points. He scored Gonzaga’s first five points in the second half. He then took a feed from Wiltjer for a dunk and let out a yell as he was swarmed by teammates.
The Zags promptly went on a 19-1 run to take command 58-42. Wiltjer had the first seven points and then one of his four assists, hitting Kyle Dranginis for a transition layup. GU guards, quiet to that point, came alive as Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. nailed 3-pointers.
Dranginis added a driving layup and a 3-pointer and Gonzaga’s lead was 16.
“Shots finally began to fall,” Bell said. “We took them in the first half and they weren’t falling but we continued to shoot them. We tried to get back to the way we were playing earlier in the year as far as emotion. I felt we did a good job of that, we just have to play a little better.”
The Dons (14-18) didn’t go away, pulling within seven, but Bell and Pangos each hit big 3s and the Zags made just enough free throws to keep a comfortable margin.
Wiltjer took an awkward fall with 5:10 left and limped off the court. He tried to loosen up and get into a defensive stance in the tunnel but his hip didn’t cooperate.
“I stretched that muscle out a lot,” said Wiltjer, who had 19 points and eight rebounds. “I really wanted to go back in but I didn’t want to put the team at risk on the defensive end. I’ll get some treatment and see how it feels in the morning.”
Karnowski made 10 of 14 shots and 4 of 5 free throws. He also had two assists, two blocks and a steal. USF counterpart Kruize Pinkins scored just two points on 2-of-10 shooting and fouled out.
“Those bigs are a force down there,” Dranginis said. “I don’t think Przemek even realizes it; the guards had to let him know, ‘You can score every single time down there, just be aggressive and be tough.’ ”
Dranginis followed his own advice in the second half, putting up all 10 of his points, three of his five boards and three of his four assists.
“He was awesome, attacking, rebounding and helping relieve pressure when they were trapping,” said Pangos, who heated up in the second half to finish with 10 points, five assists and three steals. “He was an X-factor for sure.”
Mark Tollefsen and Tim Derksen both had 21 points and Devin Watson added 17, but the Dons connected on just 37 percent of their shots. GU hit 75 percent from the field in the second half, 52.7 percent overall.
“We were able to get through that first half and I thought we got the pace going in the second half and started making shots we’re capable of making,” coach Mark Few said. “The defense kept us in it and finally our offense got going.”
Portland 69, Saint Mary’s 52: Kevin Bailey scored 16 points, Jason Todd added 14 and the sixth-seeded Pilots (17-14) surprised the third-seeded Gaels (21-9) in a quarterfinal game.
The Gaels had beaten Portland nine consecutive times and had won all four meetings between the teams in previous WCC tournament games.
Pepperdine 50, San Diego 47: Stacy Davis scored 19 points and the fourth-seeded Waves (18-12) rallied to beat the fifth-seeded Toreros (15-16) in a quarterfinal game.
The Toreros led 24-18 at halftime with both teams shooting in the low-30 percent range.
BYU 78, Santa Clara 76: Tyler Haws had 30 points, and hit the game-winning jumper with 2.5 seconds left, to lead the second-seeded Cougars (24-8) over the seventh-seeded Broncos (14-18).
Santa Clara was led by Jared Brownridge with 29 points.
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