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Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi maintains confidence through highs and lows

UPDATED: Wed., March 4, 2020

Joel Ayayi took a feed from Killian Tillie, elevated and drained a 3-pointer to put Gonzaga up by eight late in Saturday’s win over Saint Mary’s.

The play was designed for that very purpose, putting the French connection of Ayayi and Tillie on one side with Ayayi being a kick-out option if the Gaels devoted too much attention on Tillie.

“It doesn’t matter how he’s playing, the kid has big stones, man,” coach Mark Few said. “I knew it was in when he shot it. I thought that was probably the biggest hoop of the game.”

Ayayi had the same feeling.

“We worked on it at practice the whole week,” Ayayi said. “The coaches told me, ‘You have to be ready to shoot, you have to keep shooting.’ As soon I caught the ball I knew I was going to shoot it.”

Add in two free throws inside the final minute – Ayayi has missed one free throw since Dec. 21 – and the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard had 12 points, his highest-scoring game in four weeks, to go with eight rebounds and four assists.

Ayayi hears the rumbling that his play has faded during the stretch drive of the regular season. He doesn’t agree, pointing out that assumption is based largely on, well, points.

“I don’t think my game revolves around points,” he said. “That’s a good thing in my game, even if I don’t score 12 points, I still have rebounds, assists. I still play good defense and I’m still a vocal leader on this team, so I was never really worried about the way I played.

“I don’t think I went anywhere. It was just about playing to the game plan and exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses, and that’s what we did all conference long.”

The Zags’ approach, particularly in conference, has centered on feeding bigs Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme and Tillie.

Petrusev averaged 17.1 points in the nonconference, 18.5 points per West Coast Conference game. Tillie’s scoring average was 3.7 points higher in the WCC compared to nonconference. Timme’s top three scoring games came in conference.

“When we play against those big, physical teams, maybe we need me a little bit more. In conference, the right play is to pass the ball down low,” Ayayi said. “To be honest, I mean Filip, Killian and Drew are killing it, so why keep the ball outside when the easy play should be passing down low and they delivered the whole conference?”

Ayayi’s conference (10.2 points) and nonconference (10.5) scoring averages are similar, even with just two double-figures efforts in the last seven games. In the previous 19 contests, he had reached double digits 15 times.

Take a closer look and Ayayi’s field-goal attempts have dropped to 6.0 over the last 10 games compared to 10.0 in the prior 15 games. The biggest difference has been his assists-turnovers (44-30 WCC vs. 60-18 nonconference).

Ayayi had a big second half against the Gaels with 10 points, three boards and two assists.

“He was huge,” Petrusev said. “The last couple games he was still there, but maybe I didn’t feel his energy as much as maybe I’m used to. He came in and really played, didn’t think about it, just played the game the way he can play.”

Ayayi’s lone second-half turnover led to a run-out dunk by Malik Fitts, but he shook that off with his clutch 3 about 2 minutes later.

“He has a great ability to have a short memory,” Few said. “He deserves a lot of credit for that. It’s so important in athletics, whether it’s golf or baseball and obviously basketball, because there’s always a next play.”

Ayayi is looking forward to Gonzaga’s lengthy break before Monday’s semifinal at the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas. He ranks third in minutes played with 900 after logging 128 minutes last season.

“It’s going to be great,” he said. “It’s basically a last week for everybody to get better before the tournament.”

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