Pilots make No. 1 Zags zig, for more than a half
For a half, the Portland Pilots were floating on air in basketball nirvana, flirting with victory over the nation's No. 1-ranked team.
The bubble burst in the second half as Gonzaga seized control and outscored the Pilots 50-30 over the final 20 minutes en route to an 85-72 win Thursday night at Chiles Center.
It was the West Coast Conference opener for both schools, who enter the conference portion of the schedule with decidely different goals.
Terry Porter's Pilots (8-8) want merely to be competitive and have an opportunity for a winning record after going 5-27 and winless in conference play last season.
Mark Few's Bulldogs are chasing a national championship. They looked anything but like a title contender Thursday, though, falling behind 42-35 at halftime and by as many as eight points early in the second half.
That's not what Few has grown accustomed to in his 19 seasons as Gonzaga's coach. During that time, the Creswell native has amassed a record of 583-123, and an almost unbelievable mark of 277-30 in WCC play, including 18-0 last season.
Gonzaga has made it to at least the Sweet 16 in each of the last five seasons, including the NCAA championship game in 2017.
If there were an unlikely conqueror of the Zags this season, Portland would qualify. Maybe that's why Few needed no prodding to give the Pilots their due afterward.
"I didn't feel great about the second half, but I certainly felt a lot better about it than the first half," he began. "Portland did a good job, man. (The Pilots) took it to us in every facet of the game (in the first half). They played harder than us. They were way tougher than we were, and they were executing better. They were stepping up and making open shots and free throws, and we weren't. They deserve a lot of credit for that.
"Even into the second half, they continued with that. Finally, we got some veterans to step up and make some plays. (Killian) Tillie calmed us down, even though he's just on one leg."
Tillie, a 6-10 senior from France who is the only player remaining from the squad that lost to North Carolina for the 2017 national title, scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half as the Zags imposed their will on the much smaller and physically overmatched Pilots. Tillie played 27 minutes on a sore ankle.
"We did a better job in general with attention and energy and toughness in the second half," Few said. "We got out-toughed in the first half. They were just taking balls from us, driving in, rebounding, finishing over us. We smoked a bunch of layins, even though we were posting up against guards."
The Zags hurt themselves in the first half by making only 2 of 10 3-point attempts and going 5 for 11 at the foul line. They finished an abyssmal 11 for 23 at the line but made 9 of 13 shots from beyond the arc in the second half.
Portland, meanwhile, maximized its potential in what Porter labeled the best half of basketball during his four-year tenure as UP coach.
"That may be a one-in-a-lifetime thing, to have the No. 1 team in the country in your building and have a chance to get a win," the former Trail Blazers point guard said. "Without a doubt, that's the best first half we've played against a team like that. It was a great statement about what we want our identity to be at both ends of the floor."
The Pilots shot .545 from the field in the first half, sinking 6 of 8 attempts from the 3-point line, and outrebounded Gonzaga 20-16.
The Zags came out determined in the second half, getting to the rebounds and loose balls the Pilots had often retrieved through the first 20 minutes.
"The second half, they outworked us," Porter said. "They did a great job with their size, working the high-low plays. They made some 3's because of our breakdowns, our slippage at the defensive end.
"But it was great the way we came out and competed in the first half. We put ourselves in great position."
Portland finished the game .518 from the field against a Gonzaga team that had been holding opponents to .416. The Zags came into the game leading the nation in scoring at 88.5 points per game, so the Pilots' defensive performance was acceptable. And who would have bet that Few would have his starters in the game to the final buzzer?
Porter has a nice array of guards, including 5-7-maybe freshman point guard Chase Adams, who had nine points and six assists and backed down from no one Thursday night. Senior guard Isaiah White, who scored 12 points, is probably Portland's best player. The Pilots' fortunes, though, may ride on the development of 6-10 sophomore Theo Akwuba and 6-9 junior Tahirou Diabate, who must win some battles against the "bigs" of WCC foes this season.
Gonzaga? Thursday's unsteady triumph didn't exactly stoke the confidence of Few, whose team has beaten the likes of North Carolina, Oregon, Washington and Arizona already this season.
"We're extremely vulnerable," he said. "We could lose to 100 or 150 teams in the country, but we've showed we can beat anybody in the country when we're dialed in."
The Zags are too talented to lose to many opponents, with players such as Tillie, 6-7 junior Corey Kispert, 6-5 sophomore Joel Ayayi of France and 6-11 sophomore Filip Petrusev of Serbia. There is balance — Gonzaga is the only team in the country to have six players averaging in double figures scoring — but also
inexperience. Tillie was a starter and Kispert in the rotation last season, but that's it.
"I have a young and really inexperienced team," Few said. "I've never been in this situation. It's a learning process.
"I thought we'd have more games like (Thursday's) back in November. We were able to get through that. We survived this one. We get a pass on that, but we're going to have to be a lot better to finish 8-8 in the league."
Few has never had a team finish with more than three WCC losses in a season, so the Zags bettering 8-8 would be an excellent bet for anyone who likes a sure thing. At their best, they have Final Four potential, but they were nowhere close to that on The Bluff.
The Pilots have a nice nucleus of guards but are thin in the middle, which puts them in a group behind Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, Santa Clara, Brigham Young and Pacific. If Portland can finish at the top of the WCC's second group, it won't be a bad season.
What would be nice, though, is if some day a Gonzaga visit won't mean playing what amounts to a road game in the Pilots' arena. About two-thirds of the 4,633 in attendance were pulling for the visitors. That can't be a good feeling for the kids wearing Pilot purple.
A few zigs for the Zags are in order, don't you think?
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.