SALT LAKE CITY — During the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal game, Tillie made GU fans’ dreams come true as he checked into the game after missing the last seven contests. He was welcomed by a standing ovation. He finished that game with nine points — all 3-pointers.
It was clear: Tillie was back and was going to make an impact for the Zags during the post season.
That message became even clearer and more cemented in the Zags’ Round of 64 game against Farleigh Dickinson.
He was second in scoring, finishing with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting (2 for 2 from three), while adding four assists, one block and one steal.
“It feels great,” Tillie said. “Being back with my teammates is really fun. They did a great job playing with me. I think I did a great job playing with them. I think it was a pretty good night tonight.
Yes, Tillie is playing the brand of basketball everyone expected him to. But, so far, he’s had the the season he, nor any Gonzaga fan, wanted him to have.
He entered the year as a hero — he had come back after deciding not to go to the NBA, was one of the veteran players for the Zags and rounded out GU’s big three alongside Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke.
But then, during a normal practice in October, Tillie suffered a stress fracture in his right ankle after landing on it awkwardly. Following surgery, Tillie would go on to miss the next eight weeks of the season and games against Duke, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Tillie made his highly anticipated return in January, just in time for conference play. But five games in, de ja vu struck. Tillie go injured again. This time, is was a torn ligament in his right foot. He went on to miss seven more games.
Even before missing majority of this season, Tillie was held out the Sweet 16 last year due to an oblique injury.
By March 2019, he was ready to return to the court.
“Just an absolute incredible amount of joy and satisfaction to see somebody that worked so hard, had such a great year last year for us … kind of getting back in the fold,” GU coach Mark Few said. “He did a great job of staying positive. He had a bad run of luck there. It’s awesome, awesome to see — and you guys can all see if you’ve forgot, I mean, he’s a hell of a player.
Exactly what the Zags were missing in Tillie’s absence was evident all night, Friday. But perhaps, what put the exclamation point on it all was a soaring dunk with 12 minutes to go in the game.
Tillie took off from just outside the restricted area to posterize two FDU defenders and bring his teammates to their feet.
“That was crazy,” Brandon Clarke said. “I have been waiting for that moment for him, honestly. I don’t think he’s had a dunk yet this season and I’ve been waiting on it, personally. And that one was a crazy dunk.”
“If we didn’t get in trouble for celebrating, I would have taken my shirt off,” Josh Perkins added.
Having Tillie back on the floor makes this Gonzaga team an even bigger nightmare for opponents than it was without him. The addition of his 6-foot-10 frame adds another big body that defenders need to keep track of inside the paint and on the perimeter, shooting 40 percent from 3.
He also gives the Zags another veteran player and an understanding of the game and the Mark Few system that younger players don’t quite have yet.
Because of that, GU fans might be able to find a silver lining with the season he’s had — he will most likely opt out of the NBA draft again and return to Gonzaga for his senior season, bringing all his height, talent and knowledge with him.
Kendra Andrews is the Editor-in-Chief. Follow her on Twitter: @kendra__andrews.