Wiltjer scores 23, leads Gonzaga past North Dakota State

 

For Gonzaga, it’s on to the next round. For North Dakota State, it’s back to the grocery store.

Kyle Wiltjer scored 23 points Friday night to lift the second-seeded Bulldogs to an 86-76 victory over a scrappy, fun-to-watch No. 15 seed from Fargo that practices in a warehouse and lifts weights in an out-of-commission supermarket.

Gonzaga reached the Round of 32 in NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year, matching Kansas for the longest-running streak.

But it’s the next game that’s been the problem for the Zags (33-2). The team that’s made 17 straight trips to the tournament hasn’t been to the second weekend since 2009. Gonzaga plays Iowa on Sunday to try to break that streak.

"We celebrate," coach Mark Few said. "Any time you get a win this time of year, you need to celebrate it. It’s a special, special happening. You never take it for granted. I sure never take it for granted and I make sure these guys don’t."

This was no stress-free warm-up game for Gonzaga.

Sophomore Dexter Werner had a career-high 22 points — almost all of them entertaining — while keeping North Dakota State (23-10) within range for much of the game.

"A unique matchup," Bison coach David Richman called his 6-foot-6, 240-pound forward.

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The Bison, upset winners over Oklahoma as a 12-seed last March, couldn’t muster a repeat. Still, it was quite a season for a team that lost three starters and its head coach from last year and had to improvise while their facilities were being overhauled.

"I think [Richman has] done an amazing job for a first-year coach," Few said. "The story where they don’t even have a gym to work out in and they’re working out in a warehouse and lifting weights in a meat locker or whatever they’ve got going there. And they ran some great stuff."

Kevin Pangos had 18 points for the Bulldogs, who were cheered on by a big crowd that drove across the state on I-90 to watch.

For much of the second half, those fans must have been shaking their heads.

It was no surprise that Bison guard Lawrence Alexander, who sent last year’s Oklahoma game into overtime with a tying 3, had 19 points.

But when Werner, who averages only eight points but can dribble, head fake and drop the baby hook, started going off in the second half, the game became interesting. Over five minutes, he scored 11 points — capping it with a twisting, lean-in 17-footer — and also drew a charge to help cut a one-time 15-point deficit to six.

"I’d pick him up any day," Wiltjer said. "In a men’s league team, he’s going to be real good."

But on the possession after the 17-footer, Werner bumped into Pangos as he was shooting a 3. The shot fell and the four-point play bumped the lead to 10. The Bison didn’t threaten again.

Gonzaga shot 51.7 percent, just a tad under its nation-leading average this season. Overall, Richman’s nightmare — that the Bulldogs would produce from both inside and outside — came true.

Pangos, a senior, made four 3-pointers and added five assists without a turnover in his usual sparkling floor game. Gary Bell Jr., a junior, had 13 points and made Alexander work hard for his shots.

Both those guards have felt the disappointment in each of Gonzaga’s recent first-weekend flameouts, including a drubbing last year at the hands of Arizona and a loss to Wichita State the year before when the Zags were the No. 1 seed.

In Spokane, there’s hope this year could be different, in large part thanks to Wiltjer’s decision to transfer from Kentucky.

He was money in this one: 8 for 12 from the floor, 2 for 3 from 3-point range and 5 for 5 from the line, with eight rebounds.

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"He wants to win so badly," Pangos said of his new teammate. "I can definitely relate to that."

TIP-INS

North Dakota State: The renovation at the Bison’s facility in Fargo will cost about $50 million and should be complete before next season. … Also scoring in double figures were Paul Miller (13) and Kory Brown (10).

Gonzaga: The Zags, who rank fifth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.56, finished with 16 assists and nine turnovers.

NEXT UP

North Dakota State’s season is over.

Gonzaga plays Iowa on Sunday.