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Gonzaga needs a second half comeback to take 85-72 win over Portland

Gonzaga’s WCC opener did not play out as most expected.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Portland Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs avoided the fate that has already befallen five teams ranked No. 1 this season by coming from behind on the road to take a 85-72 win over the Portland Pilots in the WCC opener.

Killian Tillie led all scorers with 22 points, 18 of which came in a monster second half that was much needed, and all five Gonzaga starters scored in double figures. Corey Kispert scored 18 points, and Ryan Woolridge continued his stellar play with an efficient 15 points and 7 rebounds. Joel Ayayi added 13 points and Filip Petrusev added 11 points and 8 rebounds. JoJo Walker (15 points) and Isaiah White (12 points) paced the Pilots.

The Zags opened the first seven minutes of the game looking as if they were on their way to another laugher as they quickly raced out to an 18-7 lead. The defense got off to a strong start, forcing a shot clock violation on the game’s first possession and feasting on turnovers to create transition offense.

Everything looked good, until all of a sudden it didn’t. The Pilots flipped the script on the Zags, slowly at first, and then with a flurry of wide open threes and off-balance shots in the paint.

Shockingly, the Portland Pilots, a team that went 0-17 in the WCC last season, made the nation’s most efficient offense look like a unit that was playing its first minutes of summer practice together. Perhaps it was the curse of the No. 1 ranking, perhaps it was Gonzaga’s beleaguered defense getting exposed, or maybe it was just the curse of the black jerseys (hint: it wasn’t).

Most likely, it was an opponent putting together its best effort in an attempt at knocking off the nation’s top team not expecting such a spirited contest from last year’s WCC cellar dweller.

Whatever it was, it didn’t last (fortunately). While Portland closed out the final 12 minutes of the first half with a 32-16 run to take a 42-35 lead at the break, Gonzaga rediscovered its mojo in the second half (I’m imagining a scalding halftime talk from a fiery Tommy Lloyd and a disappointed Mark Few did the trick).

The Zags unleashed a 16-0 run early in the second half to regain the lead, sparked by the steady hands of their senior leaders in Woolridge and Tillie who also connected for a sumptuous alley-oop in the midst of that run. The defense put the clamps down on the Pilots who couldn’t find the same amount of daylight that was available in the first 20 minutes.

Portland was unable to muster another run to match its opening half, and Gonzaga closed out the game comfortably (though the Zags will have some bruises to show for it after a series of hard falls in the second half) to move to 1-0 in conference play.

It was particularly satisfying to see Tillie come alive in the second half after a slow start to the game and a suboptimal start to his season as he’s worked his way back from knee surgery. Playing in front of Zach Collins, his old buddy and frontcourt partner, the last member of Gonzaga’s great(est) recruiting class of 2016 produced his best game of the season with his team under fire.

The fact that Tillie’s two best games came in the loss to Michigan and again on the road in Portland shows he plays his best when the chips are down for Gonzaga, and underscores the importance of his health to the program’s goal of another deep tournament run this year.

It likely won’t be the last time the Zags need him to put together another big performance to pull out a win.