LAS VEGAS – Here in this gambling mecca, dreams are fulfilled and shattered on a nightly basis. On Monday night, Gonzaga’s veteran basketball team effectively told the young Pepperdine Waves: Keep dreamin’.
The senior-less Waves, who lost close games with Gonzaga in both regular-season meetings, scored the first basket of the second half to forge a 35-35 tie. The seventh-ranked Bulldogs responded by sinking 13 of 17 shots in the first 9½ minutes of the half during a dazzling 30-8 run that spurred Gonzaga’s 79-61 victory in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament.
“That was easily the most fun we’ve had in a game this year,” Byron Wesley said after scoring a season-high 25 points in the rout.
Wesley might need to amend his statement as soon as Tuesday night. BYU, the team that snapped Gonzaga’s 22-game winning streak Feb. 28, provides the opposition in Tuesday’s title game at the sold-out Orleans Arena (6 p.m., ESPN).
“We’re definitely looking forward to that match-up,” Wesley told reporters before the BYU-Portland game even started. “Hopefully, BYU wins so we can redeem ourselves for what they did to us on our Senior Night.”
The second-seeded Cougars (25-8 with an eight-game winning streak) are the only WCC team that approaches top-seeded Gonzaga (31-2) in size, depth and offensive skill. As a bonus, do-everything, play-everywhere junior Kyle Collingsworth is flat-out tough. Also, the two-time defending champion Bulldogs downed BYU in last year’s title game.
At the start of Monday play, BYU ranked second in the nation in scoring (83.8), partly because they ranked first in free-throw attempts (824, compared to 670 for Gonzaga). Not coincidentally, BYU guard Tyler Haws — who can pop a 3-pointer or drive to the basket with equal aplomb – ranked third in scoring (22.2) and second in free throws made.
Gonzaga might want to take notes when BYU goes to the line, since the Cougars ranked fifth in free-throw shooting percentage at 76.8. Gonzaga shoots a respectable 69.2 percent, but Monday marked the third time they’ve converted less than half their free throws. GU went 9-for-19 (47.4 percent), and Wesley was 3-for-8.
Of course, poor free-throw shooting can be covered nicely when you lead the nation in field-goal shooting percentage (52.4) and also rank among the best in points per game (78.8) and 3-point shooting percentage (40.3). Gonzaga shot 52.5 percent Monday, including 47.1 percent (8-for-17) from beyond the arc against a Pepperdine team that led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage defense at 25.6.
Bruising center Przemek Karnowski complemented he perimeter game with 13 points gathered in the paint, and Kyle Wiltjer again provided an impressive mix of offense from all over the floor.
“That’s when, obviously, we’re at our best,” coach Mark Few said. “We can spread you out and post you with our bigs.”
Wiltjer missed the final minutes of Gonzaga’s previous game Saturday after suffering a hip injury. He started Monday, played 31 minutes and produced 17 points and nine rebounds.
“He showed a lot of courage,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Whaddaya expect, coach? After all, Wiltjer is the son of a former hockey player from Canada. Kyle grew up in Portland, but one presumes his dad fed him pucks for breakfast to toughen him up.
Pepperdine (18-13) could have used some hockey sticks and goalie equipment to slow down the Zags in the second half.
“That’s probably one of the funnest halves I’ve played here,” said Kyle Dranginis, a redshirt junior guard who provided yet another strong performance off the bench for the Bulldogs.
Now the Bulldogs move on, playing in the title game for the 18th consecutive year (“a pretty amazing feat,” Few allowed) en route to their 17th consecutive NCAA tournament (“Just a crazy, incredible streak”). A win Tuesday ties the school record of 32, set by the 2012-13 team that was ranked first in the nation.
“I’m tellin’ ya, if you get 30 in college basketball, that is a hell of a feat,” Few said. “I don’t care if you’re Kentucky or Duke or (North) Carolina.”
Or, for that matter, Gonzaga.