SAN FRANCISCO — For the second time in three days, second-ranked Gonzaga found itself behind in the second half against a West Coast Conference opponent with a losing record.
For the second time in three days, the Bulldogs used a second-half surge to escape.
Santa Clara was Gonzaga’s victim on Thursday, and on Saturday night the Bulldogs turned to a seldom-used zone defense to get past San Francisco 81-70 at sold-out War Memorial Gym for their 17th consecutive victory.
Forward Kyle Wiltjer led Gonzaga (24-1, 12-0 WCC) with 29 points and 11 rebounds, and guard Kevin Pangos added 15 points.
Forward Mark Tollefsen was the top scorer for the Dons (9-16, 3-10) with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field and guard Corey Hilliard contributed 11 points.
San Francisco, which lost its fifth straight game, took its first lead of the game 15 seconds into the second half when a Gonzaga turnover led to guard Tim Derksen’s breakaway layup and a 40-38 San Francisco lead.
The score was tied 50-50 with 14 minutes left when Gonzaga coach Mark Few, fed up with his team’s man-to-man defense, turned to the zone.
“We played poorly defensively until we went to the zone,” Few said. “They were lighting us up. We couldn’t stop them. We hadn’t played zone in about a month, but we just weren’t stopping them. They were torching us pretty good.”
The Dons finished shooting 50 percent from the field but found things a little tougher against Gonzaga’s zone.
The score was tied 55-55 after Tollefsen made a 5-footer with 11:42 left. But a 3-point shot by Pangos gave the Bulldogs a 58-55 lead at the 10:38 mark and started a 10-1 run that put Gonzaga ahead 66-56 with 8:28 left. Wiltjer hit two 3-pointers during the surge.
“We just wanted to throw something new at them and it worked pretty well,” Wiltjer said of the switch in defenses. “It could have gone anyone’s way, but we executed at the end. We don’t want to play close games, but it may help us down the line.”
An 18-foot shot by guard Devin Watson brought the Dons back within three at 68-65 with 4:08 left. Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. then hit one of two free throws, and after forward Domantas Sabonis got an offensive rebound on the miss, guard Byron Wesley added two foul shots to give the Bulldogs a 71-65 lead with 3:11 to go.
“They were playing really physical, really well, then we kind of flipped it and closed it out,” Few said.
Gonzaga, which entered the game leading the nation in field-goal percentage at .533, shot 50 percent against the Dons, the 10th time in the last 11 games that the Bulldogs shot 50 percent or better from the field.
Getting 16 offensive rebounds also helped the Bulldogs get past the Dons, who were spurred by the 4,000 fans in the gym, by far the Dons’ biggest home crowd of the season.
San Francisco coach Rex Walters reluctantly admitted the noisy crowd support helped.
“It pains me to say yes,” he said. “It really shouldn’t matter. If there’s nobody in the gym or 5,000, it shouldn’t matter.
“But our guys played hard. We need that kind of effort every time.”
Even with the effort, the Dons could not keep up with Gonzaga for 40 minutes.
“You look at Pangos, Bell and (center Przemek) Karnowski, and those guys alone would make you one of the top teams in the league,” Walters said. “Then you add Wiltjer (a transfer from Kentucky) and (Byron) Wesley, who was at USC.”
NOTES: F Kruize Pinkins, San Francisco’s leading scorer, had started all 24 previous games this season but was not in the starting lineup Saturday. He entered the game with 17:12 left in the first half. … Heading into Saturday’s game, Gonzaga had beaten San Francisco five consecutive times, but the Bulldogs lost three times in a row on the Dons’ home court from 2010 to 2012. … Gonzaga beat San Francisco 88-57 last month in Spokane, Wash. … The second-ranked Bulldogs are the highest ranked team ever to visit San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym. … The highest-ranked team San Francisco has ever beaten was No. 3 LaSalle in the 1955
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