On the same night his former team posted 110 points and cruised to victory, Kyle Wiltjer faced a far more daunting task.
Some 2,300 miles west of a jubilant Rupp Arena, Wiltjer and his Gonzaga teammates entered McKeon Pavilion, a 3,500-person gym that was standing room only for Saturday night’s primetime matchup vs. West Coast Conference rival St. Mary’s.
Gonzaga, which entered the game with a chance to go undefeated in the WCC for the second time in the last three years, had won seven consecutive games vs. St. Mary’s, with the last six coming by an average of margin of 19.7 points. Wiltjer came in fresh off a 45-point performance against Pacific and was playing like an All-American. The Zags were winners of 20 straight games and a win Saturday evening would set a program record for consecutive victories.
But the beauty of rivalry games is none of that matters.
With former Gael great and current San Antonio Spur Patty Mills in attendance to have his jersey retired, St. Mary’s did not care that Gonzaga was aiming to capture its third consecutive outright WCC regular season championship. And if the Zags had any doubts, a 30-15 deficit at the under-eight minute media timeout was good insight.
The Gaels punched the Zags, whose largest deficit in 28 games had been just eight points, in the mouth early. Shots weren’t falling. They had no answer in the low block or the perimeter. Wiltjer was held scoreless in the final 17:32 of the first half on 0-for-6 shooting.
Mark Few’s normally composed squad looked out of sorts, as if almost confused at its own futility. His team was playing hard and getting good opportunities, but was uncharacteristically unable to execute.
The biggest knock against the nation’s No. 3 team is its strength of schedule. The nightly competition in the WCC is not what it is in the ACC or the Big 12. No one is trying to say it is, not even Gonzaga. But perhaps a truer test of what a team is comprised deals less with whom it faces, but rather of how it responds to adversity. How does it deal with a kick in the mouth when it doesn't play many teams capable of doing the kicking?
Coming into Saturday, that was one challenge Gonzaga had yet to experience this season. The tools are there for the Zags to go deep into the NCAA tournament: a trusted veteran point guard in Kevin Pangos, a go-to scorer in Wiltjer and a typically reliable low-post presence in Przemek Karnowski. The one thing that was missing was a chance to put those variables to the test.
And the Zags answered.
Gonzaga went on a 12-2 run to open the second half and pull within one before St. Mary’s responded with a run of its own to push the lead back to double digits with 11:08 remaining. It just felt like the Gaels’ night.
Through all of this—the sold-out road environment, the double-digit deficit, the lack of execution—Gonzaga never folded, and turned on a gear that it had not displayed this year. The Zags finished the game on a 29-9 run, led by Wiltjer, who, undeterred, closed out the last six minutes with 11 points, including six crucial free throws with under a minute left to secure the 70-60 win.
The once-raucous St. Mary’s crowd filed solemnly out of the building while Few & Co. calmly shook hands, seemingly unfazed, aware there is more work to be done, more teams for which to prepare. Among which, in a few weeks time, may very well end up being Wiltjer’s old team with high stakes on the line.
There’s no telling if Gonzaga will win that game if and when it happens. But it will be ready.