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Gonzaga outlasts USF in 81-77 win to advance to the WCC Final

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San Francisco has given the Bulldogs three tough games this season, but were unable to seal the deal for the third time.

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs San Francisco Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs completed the trifecta against the San Francisco Dons in a hard fought 81-77 win in the WCC Tournament Semifinals at the Orleans Arena. The win marks Gonzaga’s 23rd consecutive appearance in the WCC Tournament Championship Game.

As he has had a knack of doing throughout his career, Killian Tillie came up big for the Zags when their backs were against the wall, leading the team in scoring with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 steals. Ryan Woolridge also had a strong evening with 16 points (2-2 3PA), and Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi both added 14 points apiece to the ledger. Drew Timme came off the bench to provide 9 points.

Charles Minlend led the scoring for USF with 19 points.

The Zags opened the game eager to flip the script after USF got the best of them in the first half of the two previous games played this season, and it worked for a time. Gonzaga picked apart USF’s man-to-man defense through the first seven minutes, racing out to a 21-9 lead fueled by the backcourt which feasted on USF’s penchant for overplaying on the perimeter.

The Dons struggled to stop Gonzaga’s off-ball movement for awhile before adjusting to a 34 court press that was effective in disrupting the GU offense long enough to allow them to claw their way back into the game. The USF comeback was fueled by a trio of 3’s from senior forward Remu Raitanen, who seized on the open looks afforded by a Gonzaga defense that was focused on collapsing on the paint and taking away the penetration of Charles Minlend and Jordan Ratinho.

Gonzaga edged ahead in the final few minutes of the first half to take a 40-35 halftime lead after forcing Jimbo Lull to the bench and getting the best of USF’s defensive scheme with some well-executed press breaks.

The second half against Gonzaga has been USF’s bugaboo this season, and was a talking point for head coach Todd Golden during his pre-game interview on the broadcast. Golden must have been happy with his team’s play to open the half as two consecutive baskets and a defensive stop cut Gonzaga’s lead to a single point inside the first 45 seconds.

Gonzaga struggled mightily at the defensive end with controlling USF’s dribble penetration, and found themselves in a legitimate dog fight during the second half. Even after USF center Jimbo Lull had to return to the bench after picking up his fourth foul early in the half, the Zags were unable to capitalize on the interior matchups and gain any separation.

Give the Dons credit for buckling down and refusing to concede to a Gonzaga squad that has escaped from their clutches twice already this season. USF’s defense succeeded at disrupting the Gonzaga offense and forcing the Zags out of their balanced and efficient offensive approach. Unfortunately for USF, even succeeding at that doesn’t guarantee a victory as the Zags still have a stable of athletes who are capable of carrying the squad to a win.

Enter Killian Tillie, who has made a habit of coming through in the clutch for the Zags when the offense breaks down. The senior forward, in his final tournament at the Orleans Arena where he once made a million threes in a row to lock up the 2018 WCC Championship, stepped up once again in a tight spot. He didn’t do it alone, however, as Joel Ayayi came alive in the final 10 minutes of the game en route to 12 second-half points to help close the door on the Dons once and for all.

It wasn’t pretty, but none of Gonzaga’s games against USF this season have been masterpieces. Even so, the Zags once again proved their mettle by outlasting USF to lock up a spot in the WCC Championship.