LAS VEGAS (AP) –David Stockton had 21 points, Sam Dower Jr. added 12 points and nine rebounds, and Gonzaga advanced to the West Coast Conference championship game for the 17th straight year with a 70-54 win over Saint Mary’s Monday night.
The Bulldogs will face BYU Tuesday at 6 p.m. PDT on ESPN in the title game. It’s the first title-game appearance for the Cougars in their three years of WCC membership. BYU downed San Francisco 79-77 in overtime in the late semifinal Monday. Gonzaga and BYU split the season series, the Bulldogs winning 84-69 in Spokane and losing at BYU two weeks ago 73-65.
Gonzaga (27-6) crushed Saint Mary’s in two meetings during the regular season behind its defense and did it again in the WCC semifinals, holding the Gaels (22-11) to 37 percent shooting.
Gary Bell Jr. added 14 points and Dower made all eight of his free throws after setting a WCC record by going 15-for-15 in the semifinals. His 23 free throws in this tournament are a record which former Bulldog John Rillie (1995) shared at 22, and Dower’s 23 straight throws are also a tournament mark. Going back to the end of the regular season Dower has now made 24 straight free throws. Stockton also had six rebounds and four assists for Gonzaga, which will play for its fourth WCC tournament title in five years.
Brad Waldow had 14 points and Stephen Holt 13 and for Saint Mary’s. Holt finished 3-for-9 from the field as the Bulldogs did a good job defensively.
“We want to make sure he (Holt) sees a lot of eyes and help. He’s the head of the snake so we put our best defender on him, Gary (Bell Jr.), and he did a great job every year he’s been here at Gonzaga. He’s pretty experienced with that so we really tried to make it tough for him with everything.”
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have been familiar foes in the WCC tournament, meeting for the sixth straight season including the last five title games.
This one was a little different; they were playing in the semifinals instead of the championship game for the first time during that stretch.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few credit his squad with finding a way.
“From a coaching point of view it was great to see. It was workmanlike, it was very physical. Plan A wasn’t always working, Plan B wasn’t always working, but these guys stayed with it and found different ways to be successful. I thought Saint Mary’s did a good job of slowing the pace down and playing our bigs physical,” Few said.
Gonzaga entered the tournament with a somewhat-shaky NCAA tournament resume after late-season losses to BYU and San Diego. The Bulldogs won the WCC regular-season title for the 15th time in 17 seasons and ran over Saint Mary’s in the finale, 75-47 for the most lopsided game in the series since 2001.
But Gonzaga was far from stellar in its WCC tournament opener, trailing sub-.500 Santa Clara most of the way before pulling out a 77-75 victory on Stockton’s layup with 2 seconds left.
Saint Mary’s had it a little easier in its opener, rolling over Pepperdine 80-69 behind Waldow’s 21 points. But Gonzaga has been a tough matchup for the Gaels, particularly on the offensive end.
Saint Mary’s lost the first game to the Zags by 22 points and shot a combined 27 percent, including 6 of 30 on 3-pointers, in the two games combined.
The Gaels continued to struggle against Gonzaga’s quick-rotating defense, throwing the ball away and putting up difficult shots.
Saint Mary’s didn’t crack double figures until Waldow scored on a layup with 5:32 left in the first half and, even making a few shots down the stretch, went 9 for 23 from the floor to trail 31-20.
The loss ended all hopes the Gaels had of a NCAA berth and will more-than-likely be headed to the NIT. Few said it just happened to be one of those years for the Gaels.
“It’s been one of those years. Sometimes it’s been more cyclical in the conference with teams stepping up and having good runs. I think they (Saint Mary’s) have just had some tough bounces this year, I mean they are still a really tough out,” Few point out. “We’ve played very well against them, especially the first two times and we played solid again tonight. They are right there, they’ve lost some tough games in the middle of the conference that hurt them a little bit. Otherwise, they are certainly physical enough and got some weapons and if they had won those games they probably would have been hunting an NCAA bid.”
The Gaels made a brief run to open the second half, pulling within 33-27 on Kerry Carter’s 3-pointer.
Gonzaga clamped back down and, keyed by a 3-point by Stockton, pushed the lead back to 13. Saint Mary’s tried to mount a couple of runs, but had trouble finishing at the rim against Gonzaga’s big men to get much closer.
Few said some guys stepped up.
“The neat thing to see from our end is we have other guys who could step up. David stepped up big time tonight. We thought some of our other guys stepped in and made plays. Drew Barham came in and impacted the game without even hitting a shot. He usually impacts the game from three but got some big rebounds, made some big steals and got some big hustle plays that let us extend the lead in the second half,” Few said.