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Gonzaga survives a 77-72 grinder against San Diego

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Let’s hope Gonzaga doesn’t have to play in San Diego anymore this season.

NCAA Basketball: Pepperdine at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

If we’ve learned anything this season, it’s that the city of San Diego is a basketball black hole for the Gonzaga Bulldogs despite pulling out a hard-fought 77-72 win against the San Diego Toreros. Let’s hope the NCAA Selection Committee finds another city to send Gonzaga when the tournament comes calling.

The frontcourt led the way for the Bulldogs as Killian Tillie (17 points, 6 rebounds), Rui Hachimura (16 points, 8 rebounds), Johnathan Williams (11 points, 9 rebounds), and Corey Kispert (10 points) all reaching double figures in scoring. Josh Perkins also chipped in 10 points. Williams narrowly missed out on extending his double-double streak to seven games. San Diego’s Olin Carter led all scorers with a gutsy 21-point effort.

This was not a game that will ever fall into the “beautiful game” category, as both teams struggled to establish any type of offensive rhythm despite solid box score shooting numbers. Even when shots did manage to fall in, they didn’t come easily, and the Zags were forced into a physical, defensive grinder that served San Diego well.

Gonzaga got off to another quick start, with an electric baseline reverse dunk from Williams sandwiched between a pair of threes from Melson and Norvell. As it was in the first game between these teams in Spokane, however, the Zags could not sustain the mini-run and gain any separation as they found space hard to come by against San Diego’s stingy defense.

Play began to devolve into a frenetic mess as both teams managed to combine for nine turnovers by the second media timeout. The Zags tried to find a modicum of stability by pounding the ball inside, but the rim was doing that thing where it had an invisible lid covering it, and the fact Williams had to go to the bench with foul trouble halfway through the half didn’t help matters much.

As Gonzaga struggled to muster its energy and competitive edge, the Toreros took their opening and reeled off an 8-0 run that gave them a 30-27 lead with 4 minutes left to play in the first half. Perhaps sensing the fragility of the situation, Few took the risk of re-inserting Williams back into the game despite his foul trouble. The decision nearly backfired when Williams appeared to suffer an injury his ankle/lower leg. Williams, fortunately, played on but it was certainly a tense moment for Gonzaga fans as the season hung in the balance with postseason play just around the corner.

The Zags ended the first half down 37-34, which was their first halftime deficit in two months. I’m not sure what was said at halftime, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem like it worked as the start of the second half was disappointingly similar to the first.

Gonzaga’s defense seemed to consistently be a half-step slow, and even on possessions when it defended well, San Diego was still able to convert several difficult baskets late in the shot clock. Things went from bad to worse when Melson picked up his fourth foul with 16 minutes left in the game, and the Zags appeared to be on the brink of disaster.

Just when it looked like it was going to be one of those ignominious nights for Gonzaga, it found a lifeline in the form of Killian Tillie. At one point the sophomore from France scored seven consecutive points, and along with a three from Kispert, helped Gonzaga recover a narrow 52-51 lead.

To their credit, the Toreros refused to capitulate to their WCC overlords despite Gonzaga finally beginning to look as though it was clicking on both ends of the floor. San Diego Olin Carter pushed the Zags to their limit, twice cutting the deficit to just three points inside the game’s final minute, and forcing Gonzaga to execute at the free throw line to ice the game. Unlike the 2008 Memphis Tigers, however, the Zags proved their mettle at the charity stripe and in doing so clinched at least a share in the WCC regular season title with one more game left to play at BYU on Saturday.