By John Crumpacker
#WCCHoops Columnist John Crumpacker is onsite at the 2016 West Coast Conference Basketball Championships and will be providing exclusive content throughout from the men’s and women’s tournaments.
LAS VEGAS – They played the championship game of the West Coast Conference Tournament on Monday night, only they called it a semifinal. Try telling 8,300 fans it was only a semi. “As a player, you can’t ask for a better atmosphere to play in,’’ BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on top. This atmosphere was special. It’s rare to play in an atmosphere like this. You cherish this.’’In what looked, felt and sounded like a title game, No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 3 BYU waged a spirited battle at the Orleans Arena for the right to play in Tuesday’s championship game against Saint Mary’s, an 81-66 winner over Pepperdine in the first semifinal that looked, felt and sounded like a semifinal.It remains to be seen what Gonzaga might have left in the tank less than 24 hours later after leaving it all on the court in a physical and emotional 88-84 victory over BYU.“I don’t have any doubt that tomorrow they’ll rise up again,’’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of his 25-7 team. “It was just a great, epic basketball game. When we play BYU … they play so stinkin’ hard. They come at you for the full 40 minutes. No lead is safe because they’re so explosive. I thought there were some great performances on both sides of the ball.’’Indeed there were.For Gonzaga, Kyle Wiltjer demonstrated yet again why he’s the most skilled offensive player in the conference as he struck for 29 points and showed NBA scouts he can hustle for loose balls and play a little defense as well, as evidenced by his two blocks. Domantas Sabonis was stalwart as always with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Guards Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins combined for 32 points.“This is what we live for,’’ Perkins said. “You work out every day for moments like this.’’Coach Dave Rose’s Cougars gave it everything they had in falling four points short. Freshman Nick Emery, a shooter as well as a scorer, poured in 27 points. WCC Player of the Year Collinsworth contributed 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists and will have to wait to see if his senior season will be extended in a postseason tournament.
“There’s a lot of emotion in that locker room,’’ a subdued Rose said. “My message to them was I’m proud to be their coach. I hope we can play again (this season). We’ll see.’’From a 47-47 result at the halftime horn, thanks to a follow slam by BYU’s Corbin Kafusi that looked like basket interference but was ruled a good shot, the Zags stretched out to an 81-74 lead on a 3-point shot by Wiltjer with 2:59 to play. Resolute BYU refused to fold and when Chase Fischer nailed a 3-pointer with 31 seconds remaining, the Cougars still had a shot at 85-82.Three free throws down the stretch preserved the win for Gonzaga, however. After the game Few braced Collinsworth and wished him well at the same time expressing gratitude for not having to face him again on a WCC court.“There’s a lot of mutual respect,’’ Collinsworth said. “Nothing but respect. He wished me well on the next level.’’
Meanwhile, Marty Wilson is much too young to be a grumpy old man. At 49, the Pepperdine coach has years to go before reaching the status of a curmudgeon. Nevertheless, after his Waves were rolled out of the arena by Saint Mary’s 81-66 in the first semi, Wilson suddenly lost interest in the rest of tournament. Get off my lawn, he essentially said.“I really don’t care who wins this thing now,’’ he said. “I like all these guys. All three of those teams have battled each other. I know Saint Mary’s had Gonzaga’s number this year. It’s all about who’s sticking to the game plan. I’m not rooting for anyone. I’m rooting for Pepperdine.’’In contrast to Gonzaga-BYU, Saint Mary’s put its semi away in the first half, much to Pepperdine’s surprise. Unlike the two games during the regular season – both won by the Waves – the Gaels started hot and fast and before the Waves knew what was happening, they were down by 14 (20-6), then 16 (29-13) and finally 20 points at halftime, 44-24.“It was a little bit of a surprise,’’ said Pepperdine’s Lamond Murray Jr., who had a game-high 20 points. “The last three times we played them (going back to 2014-15), it wasn’t high-scoring.’’The Waves made a little run in the second half to whittle Saint Mary’s lead to 10 at 64-54 on Jeremy Major’s driving layup, but when Calvin Hermanson swished a 3-point shot with 3:05 to go, the Gaels were safely back up by 15 at 69-54.Pepperdine’s damage had been done, and it was not enough to stave off defeat. Pepperdine hopes to continue playing in some non-NCAA tournament at 18-13.“The disappointing thing was the mindset. I don’t think we had the right mindset in the first half,’’ Wilson said. “You’ve got to give Saint Mary’s a lot of credit. They did a great job in the first half with how we had been guarding them the last three games. … I thought they were very prepared. They were more prepared and executed better than us tonight.’’Two of Saint Mary’s Aussies, Emmett Naar and Dane Pineau, were especially prepared as the former found the latter for several close-in shots. The 6-foot-9 Pineau finished with 16 points and nine rebounds while Naar had 14 points and nine assists. Joe Rahon led the Gaels with 18 points.