Kyle Wiltjer knows what an NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship squad looks like.
He played on one in 2012 at Kentucky.
And he sees that same drive with his new team — seventh-ranked Gonzaga.
“We have all the pieces,” Wiltjer said. “We want to do something special. It is all talk until the (NCAA) tournament.”
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When NCAA tournament teams are announced Sunday, it would have been a mere formality for the Zags to make it for a 17th consecutive time. Still, they like the sound of that gavel — that official stamp as being the automatic qualifier from the West Coast Conference.
Top-seeded Gonzaga wrapped up the conference tournament title Tuesday by outrunning second-seeded Brigham Young, 91-75, at the Orleans Arena.
It was the Zags’ 14th WCC tournament championship. Dating to 2009, it was the fifth consecutive time they have won the conference title game by double digits and the second time over the Cougars. Gonzaga won last year’s matchup, 75-64.
“It was a great basketball game played with a lot of possessions — and a lot of heart shown by both teams,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It was nice to get down here and take a step to getting back … to being in attack mode. That is, without a doubt, when we are at our best.”
For a Zags team that put together some impressive scoring spurts in the first half – and scored 48 points – BYU was still squarely right on their tail, mainly because of Kyle Collinsworth’s driving ability. He scored a season-high 28 points.
But the game took a drastic turn on a rare sighting – a blocked 3-point attempt.
Wiltjer (18 points, 10 rebounds), the WCC tournament most valuable player, and interior mates Przemek Karnowski (12 points, eight points in first 5:29 of the second half) and Domantas Sabonis (15 points) simply overpowered the BYU front line in the second half.
And Wiltjer’s 3-pointer from the left corner gave the Zags a 67-59 advantage with 11:46 to go.
On BYU’s next possession, guard Tyler Haws – the WCC’s leading scorer at 22.1 points per game – tried getting the 3-pointer back. He elevated from the left wing, only to see Gonzaga’s Kyle Dranginis reject it backward toward the sideline.
Both players ran after it, and referee Michael Irving ruled that Haws touched the basketball last before it went out of bounds.
“I thought it was off Kyle,” Haws said. “A few plays like that didn’t go our way.”
That sent BYU coach Dave Rose into a tirade. Irving called him for a technical foul at the 11:33 mark.
Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos made both free throws. And Sabonis gave the Zags a 71-59 lead on their next trip off a nice pass from Karnowski.
Few said the difference between the big victory Tuesday, and the 73-70 loss to the Cougars on Feb. 28 in Spokane was how his big frontcourt played. He reminded them of that this week.
“Sometimes you get away from understanding what your strengths are,” Few said. “We’ve got a lot of strengths, but at the end of the day, our (big players) are what separate us nationally.”
Wiltjer, the 6-foot-10 junior from Portland, had a phenomenal final two days of the tournament, which was a big boost considering he was highly questionable to play after suffering a hip injury Saturday against San Francisco.
He said it was “super sore … and I woke up (Sunday) and it was even sorer.” But working in the swimming pool with athletic trainer Travis Knight, and receiving acupuncture from team chiropractor Kelli Pearson really helped in getting him ready for the semifinals.
“I was not sitting around on my day off,” Wiltjer said. “I was doing treatment and ice baths all day — and I have ice baths.”
Now all the waiting will all be done Sunday to see where the Zags — projected to be a No. 2 seed — will land. It looks hopeful it will be either in Seattle or Portland for the first two rounds.