SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — For the second straight game, Gonzaga found itself locked in a close contest against an overmatched team before pulling away late. As tense as some of those moments may have been, the Bulldogs believe they will be beneficial come tournament time.
Kyle Wiltjer scored 29 points and made a pair of 3-pointers in a key second-half run that helped No. 2 Gonzaga win its 17th straight, 81-70 over San Francisco on Saturday night.
“It showed that we are able to execute down the stretch and get stops when they really matter,” Wiltjer said. “We don’t like close games obviously. But I think it really is helping us find an identity and what we can do and where we can go in late-game situations.”
Kevin Pangos added 17 points and Byron Wesley had 12 for the Bulldogs (24-1, 11-0 West Coast Conference), who are off to the best start in school history.
Gonzaga swept the weekend in the Bay Area despite trailing near the midpoint of the second half at Santa Clara on Thursday and being tied 29 minutes into this game against USF (9-16, 3-10).
“We made winning plays,” Pangos said. “We executed at the end and got some stops. It was good. We’ll need to do that in games. It’s not always going to be comfortable leads.”
Mark Tollefsen scored 18 and Corey Hilliard added 13 for the Dons, who have lost five straight for the first time since losing the first five conference games in 2012-13.
“It was definitely a winnable game,” USF coach Rex Walters said. “We just fouled too much and got them on the line too much.”
USF tied the game on Tollefsen’s shot at the halftime buzzer. The Dons then took their first lead when Matt Glover stole the ball from Gary Bell Jr. on the opening possession of the second half and fed Tim Derksen for a layup that made it 40-38.
Pangos answered with a 3-pointer and the game went back and forth from there with neither team leading by more than three points until Wiltjer hit a 3-pointer that made it 61-56 midway through the second half.
Przemek Karnowski added a basket on Gonzaga’s next trip and then Wiltjer hit another 3 to make it 66-56 with an 11-1 run.
Wiltjer’s big shots came after he briefly left the game with an injury. He limped to the bench after scoring on a goaltending call earlier in the half and was tended to by the trainer before returning to the game.
The Dons responded with a 9-2 run before the Bulldogs sealed the game at the foul line.
Gonzaga: Pangos passed Matt Bouldin for seventh place on the school’s career scoring list with a 3-pointer in the second half. Pangos has 1,689 career points. Next up is Ronny Turiaf with 1,723. … Gary Bell Jr. missed all seven shots he took, marking the first time this season he failed to make a basket.
San Francisco: Leading scorer Kruize Pinkins did not start for the first time this season after being held to eight points and three rebounds against Portland on Thursday. Pinkins finished with 11 points. … The Dons have not beaten a top 5 team since knocking off No. 5 Iowa in the NCAA title game in 1956.
After watching his team struggle to stop the Dons with their man defense, coach Mark Few switched to a zone for the first time in about a month. It paid dividends as USF missed six of eight shots during a late-game stretch that decided the game.
“We just couldn’t stop them,” Few said. “Our man defense has been excellent this year but they were torching us pretty good so we had to try something.”
Gonzaga: Host Loyola Marymount on Thursday.
San Francisco: Host Santa Clara on Thursday.
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