SEATTLE – When the game got tight in the second half, probably tighter than it should have, Kyle Wiltjer got more animated. And more clutch. Same with Kevin Pangos.
The pair blunted several North Dakota State rallies with key buckets to help the second-seeded Bulldogs to an 86-76 NCAA tournament win Friday night in front of a pro-Zags crowd of 14,852 at KeyArena.
Wiltjer, who had 23 points and eight rebounds, and Pangos, who scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half, did most of the heavy lifting after the Bison (23-10) strung together an improbable comeback behind 6-foot-6, 240-pound reserve forward Dexter Werner’s career-high 22 points.
“I just told the guys, ‘We are not losing this game, we’ve come too far, we’ve worked too hard,’” Wiltjer said. “To be able to fight through the adversity was good for our first game.”
Gonzaga (33-2) broke the school record for single-season wins and earned a date with No. 7 seed Iowa (22-11) at 4:10 Sunday in the round of 32. The Hawkeyes crushed No. 10 seed Davidson 83-52. The Zags won their opening NCAA tournament game for the seventh straight season. Only Kansas, with nine, has a longer active streak.
Just before Werner was attempting a free throw, Wiltjer hollered across the lane at Domantas Sabonis, encouraging the freshman forward to pick up his play. Werner made the free throw, cutting a Gonzaga lead that had reached 18 points to six with 11:13 left.
Wiltjer put meaning behind his words when he demanded the ball at the offensive end and made a 16-foot jumper. Roughly a minute later, Sabonis’ jumper from the free-throw line – he’d missed two free throws with 11:27 remaining – bumped GU’s lead to 12.
The Bison pulled within seven on another Werner basket. Wiltjer posted up a shorter defender and hit a jump hook while drawing a foul. He followed that three-point play with a midrange jumper and the Zags led by 10 with 7 minutes left.
“I had thrown a bad pass,” Wiltjer said. “I just wanted to get the ball and score.”
NDSU kept battling but this time it was Pangos who responded. The senior point guard, who has a knack for picking his spots, buried a 3-pointer and simultaneously absorbed contact from Werner. His four-point play restored Gonzaga’s lead to 72-62. Two possessions later, Pangos made another 3 and the Zags led by double figures to the finish line.
“Wiltj found me and I was wide open for that first 3,” Pangos said. “The next one, I didn’t even think. There were opportunities earlier in the game where I felt I could have shot that one. I finally said, ‘This is the time’ and I let it go.”
Pangos played all 40 minutes, finishing with five assists and no turnovers. Wiltjer was 8 of 12 from the field and hit all five of his free throws.
“I was just telling (Wiltjer), I love how competitive he is and that he just wants to win so badly,” Pangos said. “And I can definitely relate to that.”
Gonzaga, for the most part, utilized its size advantage, outrebounding NDSU 35-24 and piling up Bison fouls that led to a 19-8 edge in made free throws. However, Werner torched Gonzaga at the other end, scoring over taller defenders.
NDSU hit three 3-pointers to open the game, but Gonzaga seized control with a 20-4 run. The Zags led 43-30 at half and 53-35 after Gary Bell Jr.’s layup on a nice feed from Przemek Karnowski with 15 minutes left.
Then it got interesting, as Werner began to heat up.
“We didn’t expect that but he was in a zone, making shots. Good for him,” Karnowski said. “For us, a win is a win. If it ain’t pretty in March it doesn’t matter. We just have to win games to keep moving forward.”
The Zags made 52 percent of their shots. Bell had 13 points and Karnowski added 11 points and six boards. Sabonis had seven points and 11 rebounds. NDSU had 13 turnovers which Gonzaga converted into 24 points.
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