PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — The shots started falling again for Corey Kispert. It was a welcome sign for No. 8 Gonzaga, especially considering the uncertain status of one of its top players.
Kispert broke loose from a brutal three-game shooting funk to match his career high with 28 points and hit seven 3-pointers as the Zags beat Southern Miss 94-69 in Wednesday night’s first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Joel Ayayi added a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds for the Bulldogs (7-0), who had no trouble against a team picked to finish last in Conference USA.
Gonzaga didn’t have 6-foot-10 senior Killian Tillie, a preseason all-West Coast Conference pick who recently returned from an October knee surgery but isn’t back to full strength. Coach Mark Few said Tillie’s knee swelled up after the plane ride to the Bahamas for the three-games-in-three-days tournament at the Atlantis resort, so the team decided to be “very, very cautious” and that Tillie’s status “truly is a gametime decision.”
“I just think it’s going to be like that, see how it starts reacting to him playing,” Few said. “He played two games right before we left in like four days. I think the long plane ride might have led to it. It’s just a matter of getting all that swelling out of it and we’ll see what happens (Thursday).”
Tillie’s absence didn’t matter as much Wednesday night as Gonzaga made 20 of 29 shots (69%) and 7 of 10 3s in the opening half to lead 53-32 by the break against the Golden Eagles (2-4).
And Kispert’s rediscovered shooting touch was at the heart of it. The 6-foot-7 junior had made just 3 of 24 shots and 2 of 17 3-pointers in the past three games, but hit 9 of 11 shots and 7 of 8 from behind the arc on Wednesday night.
“He didn’t struggle tonight,” Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner said. “My gosh, he put on a shooting clinic.”
Kispert had four 3s by halftime and kept knocking them down, offering a smile toward the Gonzaga bench on at least one occasion after swishing yet another 3.
“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a lot of fun, man,” Kispert said of the past three games. “It doesn’t feel good to see the ball not go in. ... You’ve just got to trust the work you’ve put in, trust the hours you’ve done, not change a single thing and the ball’s going to eventually start falling for you.”
LaDavius Draine and Artur Konontsuk each scored 19 points to lead Southern Miss, which shot 44% and made 11 of 22 3-pointers for the game.
Southern Miss: Ladner arrived knowing his team faced a step up in competition, noting that the game and the tournament overall is an opportunity to “experience what big-time Division I basketball is supposed to look like.” The result was watching Gonzaga roll along and lead by 32 points midway through the second half.
Gonzaga: Getting Kispert going was a needed boost, while Ayayi made 9 of 12 shots and all three of his 3-point tries after entering the tournament averaging 6.7 points. Few is hoping that carries over into Thursday and Friday with Tillie’s status in question.
Draine shook free of his own outside shooting struggles for Southern Miss, scoring 19 points and making 5 of 9 3-pointers after connecting on 6 of 26 through the team’s first five games. Oddly enough, it came as he came off the bench for the first time this year — like when he was Conference USA’s co-sixth man of the year last season while shooting 46% from behind the arc.
“It was great to see him get going,” Ladner said. “He’s a great kid, works hard, it was good to see him regain his confidence a little bit. That will certainly help us moving forward.”
Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles moved to the losers’ bracket and will face No. 13 Seton Hall on Thursday.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs advanced to the winners’ bracket to face No. 11 Oregon on Thursday.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap