Courtesy Gonzaga Athletics
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Gonzaga coach Mark Few brought in veteran transfers and one of the best recruiting classes in school history this season, a group that’s been called the best in his 18-year tenure as head coach.
The Zags have lived up to the hype so far, nearly pulling off an undefeated regular season and earning another West Coast Conference Tournament title. Next up could be another No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Nigel Williams-Goss scored 22 points, Przemek Karnowski added 15 and No. 4 Gonzaga won its fifth straight WCC tournament title by beating No. 19 Saint Mary’s 74-56 Tuesday night.
“It’s no secret: if we play our best basketball, dial into the process the coaches give us, play like we did in the first half at both ends of the floor, there’s no doubt in our minds we can go win the whole entire tournament,” said Williams-Goss, who also had six assists, six rebounds and six steals.
Gonzaga (32-1), the regular-season WCC champion, was not particularly sharp in the WCC semifinals, beating Santa Clara by nine to reach the title game for the 20th straight season. The Zags got their mojo back in a dazzling first half against Saint Mary’s, then had to hold on after a shaky start to the second. Gonzaga shot 50 percent overall, scored 20 points off turnovers and had a 38-22 advantage inside, staking claim to a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re 32-1, this team has been exceptional all year,” Few said. “They’ve stepped up and met every challenge. We’ve been good from Nov. 10 to March 7 and haven’t taken any nights off. Our results speak for themselves.”
Saint Mary’s (28-4) fought back after an ugly first half with a big charge in the second. The Gaels could not make it all the way back from a 21-point deficit, though, losing to the Zags for the third time this season. Calvin Hermanson had 14 points and Jock Landale 10 for the Gaels, who must wait out selection Sunday for the second straight season.
“I felt good last year on this day and no question I felt we should have been in the tournament and I feel more confident this year,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Nothing is done until it’s done, so the only chance to make sure was tonight. But there’s not many teams that have done what we’ve done this season.”
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the WCC final has become an annual tradition. The conference’s top two teams have met in the title game seven of the past nine years, with the Zags winning six titles. Gonzaga won the two regular-season meetings this year fairly easily, but Saint Mary’s had it easy in the WCC semifinals, beating BYU by 31 after hitting 13 3-pointers.
The Gaels didn’t have the same shooting touch against Gonzaga’s smothering defense, needing nearly 11 minutes just to crack double figures scoring. Saint Mary’s was discombobulated offensively throughout the first half, hitting 6 of 28 shots and turning it over 10 times while scoring 18 first-half points. Gonzaga turned the missed shots and turnovers into baskets in transition , using a 12-0 run to build a 39-18 halftime lead.
“You have that many turnovers in a half, you’re probably going to throw up a clunker,” said Saint Mary’s guard Joe Rahon, who had seven points and five assists. ”We got a little stagnant, the turnovers, took some bad shots and that’s a recipe for disaster against a good team.” The Gaels were better to start the second, shutting the Zags down while trimming the lead to 51-46 midway through. They got no closer.
Landale had to leave after picking up his fourth foul and Gonzaga took advantage, stretching the lead back to double digits.
Gonzaga will likely contend for No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional with the Pac-12 Tournament winner. Saint Mary’s should have a good enough resume to make the NCAA Tournament despite the loss, but could have some anxious moments on selection Sunday after being left out last season.
The WCC had just one NCAA Tournament team a year ago after the Gaels were left out of the bracket. The conference should get two this season, if Few has his way. “They’re an excellent basketball team, plain and simple,” he said. “They’re very worthy and going to be a handful for someone who hasn’t played them before.”
Saint Mary’s is expected to play in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the 19th straight season.