Crumpacker: Gonzaga Ensemble Rolls to Another Title

March 6, 2018

By John Crumpacker, #WCChoops Columnist

West Coast Conference Tournament MVP Killian Tillie was asked, after all the confetti had fluttered to the floor of the Orleans Arena, to describe Gonzaga’s performance in the championship game in one word in his native language, French.

With no hesitation, he said, “Ensemble,’’ which is spelled the same in French as it is in English, with nothing to lose in translation.

“It means to play together,’’ Tillie said.

Does it ever.

In winning its sixth consecutive WCC Tournament championship with a 74-54 dismantling of BYU on Tuesday night, Gonzaga at one point in the game spanning both halves went on a breathtaking 40-8 run that took the score from 23-23 to 63-31 in just under 14 minutes, leaving the Cougars to wonder what the heck just happened.

Ensemble is what happened, five players in Gonzaga uniforms executing high-level basketball on both ends of the court in what amounted to a paroxysm of potency from one of the best teams in the country.

“Just an awesome performance by my guys here,’’ coach Mark Few said. “That’s as good a run as I’ve ever been a part of in 28 years I’ve been at Gonzaga. It was a thing of beauty. We knew we were going to get BYU’s best shot. These guys turned it up a couple notches. It started with our defense and then our offense got going.’’

The game was last tied at 27-27 when BYU star Yoeli Childs hit a 3-point shot. The Zags then finished off the half on an 11-2 run to create a modest 38-29 lead at the break.

Turns out, they were just getting started.

Gonzaga opened the second half as if an NCAA Tournament bid was at stake, which it isn’t based on its sterling body of work during what is now a 30-4 season. Points came in bunches from Tillie, Johnathan Williams, Zach Norvell Jr., Silas Melson and Josh Perkins. Tillie had seven of his 22 points in this rousing stretch of play.

“To have a team play the way these guys played during that run, it was amazing to sit back as a coach,’’ Few said. “It’s all you want as a coach to have your guys put it together like that. I’m unbelievably proud and happy for these guys.’’

Included in this run was a steal and resulting layup by Perkins that stretched Gonzaga’s insurmountable lead to 57-31. He followed up with a 3-point shot minutes later. BYU’s demise was carried out with swiftness and certainty by the Zags.

“Obviously, they had a tremendous tournament,’’ BYU coach Dave Rose said. “Tonight, they were a handful for us. I’m proud of how we competed early in the game. It’s tough when a game gets one-sided like that. Congratulations to them. I wish them luck in the NCAA Tournament.’’

At 24-10, BYU needed to win the tournament to secure an NCAA bid. With Saint Mary’s bowing out with a semifinal loss to BYU to finish 28-5, the Gaels probably have done enough to get an NCAA bid but might still be a little nervous about their chances. BYU, in turn, is probably headed to the NIT.

“I’ll tell you about our team,’’ Rose said. “This team is full of character and heart. We played most of the season with eight scholarship players. They kept fighting. We put ourselves in a situation where the only direct route to the NCAA was to win all three (WCC games). This team improved and continues to improve. We’re on a trajectory where we’re going to get better and better.’’

Until Gonzaga went on its epic run, BYU answered everything the Zags did and made the first 15-16 minutes competitive and entertaining. Childs scored 18 points in the first half but had only two in the second as Gonzaga put the clamps on him, mainly through the defensive work of Williams.

“He got the ball in some really tough spots,’’ Rose said of Childs. “We didn’t get the ball to him on angles where he’s really good. I believe they made some really good adjustments on him, making it really difficult to get his angles.’’

Williams credited assistant coach Tommy Lloyd with coming up with the perfect game plan, or at least making the perfect halftime adjustments, to deal with Childs, whose offensive game is versatile.

“It started with defense,’’ said Williams, who had 10 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks. “Tommy came out with a great game plan on defense. We knew we were going to make shots. We executed the game plan Tommy made and we played extremely hard.”

Added Tillie, “It’s all him. J-3 did a great job inside, being physical.’’

And Few: “The onus was really on J-3. He had to shore up penetration and hustle back. He did a magnificent job.’’

As usual in the Las Vegas-based WCC Tournament, Gonzaga fans turned the Orleans into a killer home court advantage, something Few never fails to acknowledge after yet another championship.

“What makes it is Gonzaga fans, flat-out,’’ he said. “I don’t know if any of these other tournaments have the feel this one does. It’s amazing to walk out there for the starting lineups and hear the masses. Our guys are comfortable here.’’

Gonzaga returns home now to get a little rest before beginning preparations for the NCAA Tournament, feeling as good about itself as any team in the country this time of year. The Zags tore through the WCC Tournament by an average of 20 points over three games to reach 30 wins.

“Thirty wins is a significant milestone in college basketball,’’ Few said. “That’s playing excellent basketball for five months. I couldn’t be happier for them. It never gets old.’’

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards. Crumpacker has been covering #WCChoops since the 2014-15 season.




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