Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SEATTLE (AP) — The entirety of a 19-point lead was gone and Gonzaga was on the verge of blowing another second-half lead.
Domantas Sabonis wasn't about to let it happen again.
Sabonis scored a career-high 36 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, Kyle Wiltjer added 24 points and the Bulldogs held on late for an 86-79 win over Tennessee on Saturday night.
Playing their annual game at Seattle's KeyArena, the Bulldogs (8-3) dominated the first half only to be challenged in the closing minutes after Tennessee rallied to take a 61-59 lead with 9:42 remaining. Quiet for most of the second half, Sabonis scored 14 points in the final 8:37 as the Bulldogs held on after losing at home to Arizona and UCLA in the past two weeks.
"We have a tendency to make things really dramatic but you know what, we dug our heels in and played great basketball down the stretch," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "
It was the finest performance of Sabonis' young career. He made 12 of 16 shots, was 12 of 15 at the free-throw line, scoring 20 points in the first half when Tennessee had no answers on how to slow Sabonis down.
His previous career-high was 26 against Northern Arizona earlier this season.
"We knew that we had an advantage inside and we just had to take care of it," Sabonis said.
Kevin Punter Jr. led Tennessee (5-5) with 23 points. Devon Baulkman added 17 points and Armani Moore had 16 for the Volunteers. Tennessee remained winless on the road this season and while coach Rick Barnes was pleased with the rally he was unhappy with the effort in the first half.
"I'm just disappointed we didn't give ourselves a chance in the first half," Barnes said. "We truly felt we could win this game and the first half we weren't engaged with our scouting report and they don't need help here."
Down 16 at halftime, the Volunteers outscored the Bulldogs 28-10 to open the second half. Tennessee trimmed Gonzaga's lead to 58-54 when Moore raced for a layup with 12:25 left and Baulkman cut Gonzaga's lead to two with a steal and layup. After Wiltjer split free throws, Moore hit a left-handed runner to pull Tennessee within 59-58 with 10 minutes left and Baulkman's 3 off an inbound play gave the Vols their first lead since the opening moments of the game.
Gonzaga responded with two straight baskets from Sabonis, the Bulldogs' first field goals in more than five minutes. Wiltjer's basket in the lane off an offensive rebound by Sabonis with 5:15 left pushed Gonzaga's lead to three. After a pair of defensive stops the Bulldogs went ahead 73-67 with 3:43 on Sabonis' dunk while being fouled off a pass from Wiltjer.
It took less than 2 minutes for Tennessee to pull even at 75-all on free throws from Punter with 2:04 remaining, but Sabonis scored on the baseline with 1:42 left and Gonzaga hit 9 of 10 free throws in the final 1:03 to pull away.
"We kind of grew up a little bit," Wiltjer said. "Hopefully we can ball out now."
Sabonis simply went over the top of the shorter Vols in the first half. He made 7 of 9 shots, scoring 20 points and grabbing seven rebounds in just 13 minutes. His first half production could have been more if not for foul trouble that forced him to the bench with 4:08 left in the half.
"I made my first couple of shots and my confidence came up so I kept shooting," Sabonis said.
Tennessee aggressively double-teamed Sabonis when he caught the ball in the post in the second half and the shots that came so easy before were regularly contested.
Tennessee: The Volunteers played on the West Coast for the first time since 2009 when they lost at USC. Tennessee's last West Coast win was in 2007 against Gonzaga in Seattle. ... Baulkman has now made a 3-pointer in nine straight games. He's shooting nearly 35 percent on 3s this season.
Gonzaga: Gonzaga played without center Przemek Karnowski for the sixth straight game as he continues to suffer from back problems. ... Crowd of 16,770 was largest of the 13 regular season games Gonzaga has played at KeyArena.
Tennessee: The Volunteers host East Tennessee on Tuesday.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs open WCC on Monday hosting Pepperdine.