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John Blanchette: Killian Tillie proves good things come to Zags who wait

Killian Tillie’s belated entrée into the 2019-20 basketball season came at precisely 6:05 Tuesday evening, greeted with a clamor that made up in volume what it may have lacked in duration.

Now, it’s possible some of the welcome wagon at McCarthey Athletic Center switched in midroar to holding their breath – just to make sure he made it through the Kennel Club’s human tunnel unscathed.

But there were some goosebumps to be had.

“Just hearing his name announced in the starting lineup kind of gave me a little thrill and excitement,” said Admon Gilder, one of Tillie’s many new Gonzaga teammates. “To hear how the community rallied around him, I’m happy for him.”

And just as happy perhaps that it wasn’t just a token return, if there’s such a thing.

The Bulldogs needed Tillie on a night that seemed less like basketball and more like doing the breaststroke through gravel, and he delivered.

And surely he needed the moment, too.

“It’s amazing to be back in the Kennel,” he said.

He hasn’t had enough moments in the last 32 months.

Counting from the 2018 season finale – the Sweet 16 loss to Florida State he watched from the bench with a hip pointer – the bouncy Frenchman had played in just 15 of Gonzaga’s last 42 games prior to Tuesday night. A stress fracture, a torn plantar fascia and most recently surgery to “clean up” a long-term knee issue all conspired keep Tillie sidelined – though yet another injury, a sprained ankle over the summer while he was gauging his worth for the NBA draft, may have been the tipping point for his return for a final year at GU.

Except that the October surgery raised the curtain on “Waiting for Killian.”

So maybe the early scenes of Gonzaga’s season weren’t so much out of a Beckett play as … well, OK, they were, mostly. A quest for something to happen, or someone. A plot twist. An actual game.

Enter UT Arlington, Tuesday’s victim that refused to play like one, eventually losing a 72-66 slog that may have suffered for artistry but not for teachable moments – so much the better for Mark Few’s young Zags.

And it provided some snapshots of what had been missed during Tillie’s extended absences.

The first came just 70 seconds into the game, Tillie collecting a pass from Gilder at the top of the 3-point arc and feeling the rhythm.

“I needed that 3 to get going,” he admitted. “I was a little scared. Last year when I came back, I air-balled my first 3.”

Those were the first of his 15 points, a total he topped last year only in the NCAA opener against Fairleigh Dickinson. His later buckets this night were maybe more impressive – hard drives that turned into and-1s, including one that went in high off the glass while he was being blasted by UTA’s Coleman Sparling.

“That,” he said, “was 100 percent luck.”

But the most telling sequence didn’t finish with a basket at all. It was a lob into the key from Filip Petrusev that Tillie used a volleyball flick to redirect to the corner, where Joel Ayayi sent it out to Gilder. He missed the open 3 and Tillie missed the tip-in, but you could hardly miss the point being made.

Maybe it’s not a universal truth, but things work better with Killian Tillie in there.

“Believe me – it is universally true,” Few protested. “The ball moves better. And there’s just so many times in basketball when you call a play and maybe it just goes wrong. (The Mavericks) were doing that all night – switching defenses, jumping up the lanes and playing us on the high side. At that point, you just forget the play and play basketball and there’s nobody better in the country when it comes to that. It’s like having another crafty point guard out there who really understands.”

But it happened at both ends. The Mavs run some funky, difficult stuff that gave the Zags some heartburn “and Killian jumped in with one day of prep after not playing forever and nailed it. And that’s what needs to be passed down to our young guys like Drew (Timme) and Anton (Watson) and Filip – because, quite frankly, they didn’t nail it. Good lesson for them.”

Killian Tillie doesn’t necessarily need the lessons at this stage, but reminders don’t hurt.

“I feel like the team needed it tonight,” he said of his contributions. “It’s different guys on the club, but we play the same way. I know the way we play at Gonzaga and I know what coach wants. It wasn’t hard to get back to it.”

Hard?

The hard part was the wait.

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