PORTLAND – The first-half stats only told part of the story.
Yes, Gonzaga didn’t have its typical offensive balance, passing and 3-point accuracy. And the Zags’ defense yielded 3-pointers and dribble penetration and got beat on the boards.
But the biggest deficiency wasn’t listed in the box score.
“We really got out-toughed in the first half,” coach Mark Few summarized.
That led to some direct conversations in the locker room. The Zags did more than just listen, quickly erasing a halftime deficit and rolling to an 85-72 victory over Portland in the West Coast Conference opener for both teams Thursday at Chiles Center.
The top-ranked Zags (15-1) rebounded from one of their worse halves of the season – they trailed the Pilots, No. 248 in the NET rankings and picked last in the WCC preseason poll, 42-35 at the break – with a dominating 20 final minutes, outscoring Portland 50-30.
Killian Tillie broke loose for 18 of his 22 points in the second half. Corey Kispert was a steady presence throughout with 18 points, and Ryan Woolridge added 15 points and seven rebounds.
Joel Ayayi worked around foul trouble to chip in 13 points, six rebounds and four assists. Filip Petrusev had 11 points and eight boards.
Beyond the numbers, the Zags started winning the 50-50 balls and making hustle plays to seize the momentum.
“I just wanted to show the team that we needed to play harder, play like dogs, so that’s what we said at halftime,” said Tillie, sporting an ice bag on the ankle he sprained against Arizona and another ice bag on his surgically repaired knee. “Everybody had to step up, do like one play that got us going and everybody did their part.”
Gonzaga’s defense did a better job of containing a Portland guard line that was impressive in the first 20 minutes.
“Just guarding your guy and executing,” Woolridge said. “If we were in one of our colors (defensive calls), we had to do that color. We couldn’t improvise.”
Gonzaga won its 12th straight in the series, its nation-leading 12th consecutive road game and its 33rd straight WCC road contest, but it wasn’t easy.
“Tillie calmed us down, even though he’s on one leg,” Few said. “Admon (Gilder) had a big steal and breakaway that got us going a little bit and fortunately we had Woolridge. He competes every night.
“We’re extremely vulnerable. We could lose to 100, 150 teams in the country and we’ve shown we can beat any team in the country when we’re dialed in.”
The Zags were dialed in early. They led 18-7, but that melted away, mostly because of defensive lapses. The Pilots connected from deep, using 3-pointers by Jacob Tryon, Chase Adams and JoJo Walker to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 19-18.
After a rough start with five turnovers and just three field goals, the Pilots seemingly could do no wrong. Walker twice made difficult high-arcing bank shots over Kispert and added a 3-pointer as Portland took a 42-35 halftime lead.
The Zags flipped the script in the second half. They scored 16 unanswered points, and Tillie’s layup on a feed from Petrusev gave Gonzaga a 59-49 edge.
The Zags won the glass, 20-13, and distributed 12 of their 18 assists in the closing half. They connected on six 3-pointers after hitting just 2-of-10 from deep in the first half.
Their free-throw shooting continues to be a sore spot. Gonzaga was 11 of 23 at the stripe.
“I felt like they were on their toes and we were on our heels for the entirety of the first half, but the second half was a different story,” Kispert said. “Being able to take pride in those hustle plays, getting second chances and finishing opportunities around the rim, before you know it we’re up 15 and we’re cruising. It was a good response in the second half.”
The Zags entertain Pepperdine on Saturday.
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