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Zags lay waste to Pilots, with Wiltjer leading the way


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Silas Melson (left) and forward Kyle Wiltjer (right) defend Portland Pilots guard Alec Wintering during Thursday's game at Chiles Center.It's a down year for Gonzaga basketball when the Bulldogs aren't nationally ranked, which happens about as often as 70-degree days in The Palouse this time of year.

After losing to Arizona and UCLA over the course of a week in December, Gonzaga dropped out of the top 25 and hasn't been back.

The Zags entered Thursday 64th in national RPI rankings, which makes them an NCAA Tournament bubble team if they don't win the West Coast Conference postseason tourney to earn the league's automatic bid. Oregon, meanwhile, went in No. 1, which will change after the Ducks' 83-63 dismantling by California. Oregon State was 38th, one of seven Pac-12 teams among the top 40.

But Gonzaga looked very much like a team that will not only make the tournament, but make some noise in it with a 92-66 slap-down of Portland Thursday night.

A sellout crowd of 4,852 at the Chiles Center -- evenly split between partisans of the Bulldogs and Pilots -- saw Portland (11-16 overall, 5-9 in WCC action) hang in for a half, then fade away amid a flurry of 3-pointers by a balanced Gonzaga outfit.

"We put it all together," said coach Mark Few, whose Zags are 20-5 overall and lead the WCC with a 12-2 mark.

Statistically, the game was won at the 3-point line. Gonzaga was 15 for 26 from beyond the arc, Portland 3 for 22. That's a 36-point difference that's simply not going to be made up.

Leading the way for Gonzaga was Kyle Wiltjer, the 6-10, 240-pound senior out of Jesuit High, who bombed in 5 of 9 attempts from the 3-point line and scored a team-high 21 points to go with eight rebounds.

His chief accomplice was another familiar name to local sports fans -- Domantas Sabonis, son of former Blazer center Arvydas Sabonis. The junior Sabonis, a 6-11, 240-pound sophomore, got off only six shots but collected 17 points and 11 boards. The Zags use a lot of high/low action, with Wiltjer stationed around the foul line and Sabonis on the block, a difficult proposition for an opposing defense.

To compound matters Thursday, perimeter players Kyle Dranginis (16 points), Eric McClellan (14), Silas Melson (13) and Josh Perkins (eight) combined to knock down 9 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc for the Zags.

"Their plan B was much better than our plan B," Portland coach Eric Reveno said. "We weren't making shots. They were letting us get some stuff inside, but they were making the 3s hard, and the looks we got weren't going down. We made them go to their secondary scorers, and their secondary scorers stepped up."

Then there was Wiltjer, who bombed in back-to-backs 3s to key a 14-1 run to start the second half to propel Gonzaga into a 58-36 lead. The Zags boat-raced the Pilots to the final horn from there.

Wiltjer shoots a set shot, but he gets it off quickly.

"You think you're there, but he has that nice, high release," Reveno said. "He catches it high and shoots it. Once he gets feeling like that, it's hard."

Wiltjer, 23, spent his first two college seasons at Kentucky, a member of the Wildcats' 2012 national championship team as a freshman and the SEC sixth man of the year as a sophomore. He transferred to Gonzaga, sat out the 2013-14 season and averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Zags a year ago.

The former Jesuit star entered his senior campaign as Sports Illustrated's preseason national player of year, ahead of Oklahoma's Buddy Hield and LSU's Ben Simmons.

SI projected Wiltjer to average 21.0 points and 7.4 rebounds, and the lanky senior has been right there, averaging 21.8 points and 6.6 boards while shooting splendidly from the field (.505), from 3-point range (.443) and from the line (.860). He ranks 11th nationally in scoring and was recently named to the "Late Season Top 20" list for the John Wooden Award as the national player of the year.

"Kyle has been great for us," Few said. "He has had a phenomenal attitude. He has been so consistent it's unbelievable, when you know he's the first guy on (opponents') scouting reports. He still finds his shots. He has scored in a variety of ways. He is improving as a defender, and he has rebounded pretty well."

NBA scouts, though, don't believe Wiltjer's talents translate to the pro game. In three mock drafts, he is projected to go late in the second round in two and undrafted in the third. "Lack of athleticism and mobility at the defensive end hurts his stock tremendously," one reviewer wrote.

That doesn't set well with those close to Wiltjer.

"Kyle can do one thing better than anybody out there -- he can make buckets," Few said. "He can shoot. The NBA line is not a concern to him. He is very comfortable there. Once he starts working out for teams … it only takes one.

"It has to be (a team that) wants to space the floor, has a really good player they don't want doubled. There are a lot of really good teams out there like that. Hopefully, people look at what he can do instead of focusing on what he can't."

Kyle's father, Greg, sees is the same way.

"It's always been the same thing," said the senior Wiltjer, who played for Ralph Miller at Oregon State with the 1981-82 team that reached the Elite Eight. "He is going to have his deficiencies. But he's a 6-10 kid who can shoot the ball.

"He just needs a crack in the door. There is going to be someone who takes a shot. Once he gets the agent thing figured out, we're hoping he crawls up (the draft board) a bit. But I'm not concerned about that. The kid's going to make some money playing somewhere."

Kyle Wiltjer admits his current draft status bothers him "a little bit."

"I try to play with a chip on my shoulder," said Wiltjer, who has his undergrad degree and will complete his masters in business in March. "But I don't worry about it too much. That stuff is out of my control. I'm just trying to get better in all aspects. I want to be unselfish and try to win. That's all that matters.

"I'm enjoying this college experience. Playing for Gonzaga and in front of our fans has been amazing. I love it."

Sabonis, meanwhile, is a prototypical NBA power forward who rebounds well and scores around the basket. The southpaw is projected to go in the first round, and perhaps in the lottery if he comes out after this season. Will he?

"I don't know. I haven't really thought about it," he said, his nose growing longer by the minute. "I'm just thinking about the season and making the team better."

Wiltjer isn't Gonzaga's only Portland-area connection. Melson, a 6-4 sophomore from Jefferson High, came off the bench to hit 6 of 9 shots from the field and dish out four assists in 29 minutes. He drew time guarding Portland point guard Alec Wintering, who managed only 11 points and had five turnovers in 34 minutes.

"Silas is becoming a Gary Bell-type defender for us," said Few, evoking the name of a former Zag guard with stopper capabilities. "He has been good with his attention to detail and ability to lock down on the other team's best guy.

"His scoring is coming around after struggling earlier in the year. Having him as our X factor is making a big difference. I'm so happy for him and Wilt to play well in their hometown."

Then there is Nigel Williams-Goss, a Happy Valley native who transferred from Washington and is sitting out the season. The 6-3 combo guard, who has two years of eligibility remaining, recently underwent ankle surgery "to clean things," Few said.

"He is a great leader, a really solid guard who can do it all," the Gonzaga coach said.

Even without 7-1 senior Przemek Karnowski -- who played five games before having season-ending back surgery in December -- the Zags could be a force to be reckoned with come tourney time.

"They're really good," Reveno said. "They do a really good job of attacking what you're doing. They've seen it all in terms of (opponents') preparation. They get everyone's best shot.

"Our guys were ready to go, fired up, but they adjusted to what we were doing. And they're pretty talented. Sabonis and Wiltjer are really good, and their guards are good, too. When two or three of them step up, you see what happens. The bottom fell out when we were chasing all those guys around."

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