LAS VEGAS – As it turned out, beating a team three times in one season proved impossible for WCC men’s and women’s basketball teams.
BYU couldn’t get over on San Francisco for a third time as the Dons celebrated their first women’s championship since 1997.
Pepperdine could not defeat Saint Mary’s for a third time in order to reach the men’s WCC Tournament championship game.
And Saint Mary’s, for as well as it played on Tuesday at the Orleans Arena, could not get the better of Gonzaga three times in 2015-16.
A brilliant night of shooting by Gonzaga led to an 85-75 victory over the Gaels and its 18th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Although the Gaels groused about not playing better defense, on the flip side the Zags were spot-on in shooting nearly 62 percent from the floor (29 of 47), a little less than 50 percent from 3-point range (6 of 13) and darn near 100 percent from the free throw line (21 of 22).
With its opponent shooting that well, it forced Saint Mary’s to play uphill almost the entire game – a futile proposition, as it turned out. The Gaels got within 70-67 inside five minutes to play but could get no closer as 10 free throws sandwiched around an Eric McClellan 3-point shot kept Saint Mary’s at bay.
There had been talk that if Gonzaga did not win the WCC Tournament, it might not get an NCAA Tournament bid, talk that coach Mark Few derisively referred to as “Armageddon’’ and “The sky is falling.’’
“All’s well in Zagsville. No Armageddon,’’ Few quipped.
More seriously, his star player, Kyle Wiltjer, said, “Nothing is guaranteed. We didn’t want to be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. We kept fighting. That’s what we really improved on. Controlling our destiny is huge.’’
Saint Mary’s destiny is in the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee, which begins chopping wood on Wednesday and won’t stop until it rolls out 68 logs on Sunday. Will the Gaels, at 27-5, be among them? With two losses to Pepperdine this season, their resume is just shy of impeccable with the number of wins, a WCC regular-season championship and two wins over Gonzaga.
“What another fantastic ballgame,’’ Few said at the start of his post-game remarks. “It was a battle back and forth. I congratulate Saint Mary’s. Just like BYU the other night. Randy (Bennett, Saint Mary’s coach) does an unbelievable job. That is a tournament team.’’
Bennett thinks so, too.
“It’s out of my control,’’ he said. “We’ll find out Sunday. I feel pretty good. We’re 27-5, one of the top five records in the country. We’ve done all we could. We won the league. The only thing we didn’t do was beat Gonzaga three times. We beat them twice.’’
After the game the Gaels bemoaned the fact they didn’t play well enough on defense to have hoisted the championship trophy and cut down the nets. In truth, though, Gonzaga just played better. Saint Mary’s only turned the ball over eight times, but Gonzaga in turn scored 20 points off those turnovers, along with a 34-24 scoring advantage in the paint.
While the Zags were running briskly on a treadmill set at a slight decline, the Gaels were forced to huff and puff on an incline the entire game. It was too much to ask, even for such an accomplished and efficient team. Shooting 46 percent for the game (25 of 54) wasn’t good enough when the other guys are firing along at 62 percent.
“It hurt a lot,’’ Gaels guard Joe Rahon said of the points-off-turnovers by Gonzaga. “We knew going into the game taking care of the ball was one of our keys. Twenty points off eight turnovers is a ridiculous number. Those are the hardest things to defend.’’
Added backcourt mate Emmett Naar, “It is tough for sure. As coach said, we didn’t defend as well as we could have or should have. They are a great team, got great players in (Domantas) Sabonis and (Wiltjer) and have some incredible offensive players. We didn’t get enough stops. It’s hard to build momentum when a team keeps shooting over 50 percent for the entire game.’’
Showing impeccable balance, Gonzaga had five players in double figures, with McClellan with 20, Wiltjer with 17, Josh Perkins with 16, Sabonis with 15 and Kyle Dranginis with 13.
“Our staff did such an amazing job. I don’t know if they slept last night,’’ Wiltjer said. “Credit to them for putting in the time and creating a good game plan for us because I thought we did a great job with moving the ball. We were really aggressive offensively.’’
Saint Mary’s got 25 points from the crafty Naar, 16 from Rahon and 11 from forward Evan Fitzner. Enjoying life behind the 3-point arc as always, the Gaels hit on 12 of 25 chances to double Gonzaga’s output on treys.
“Going in, we knew the type of team they were,’’ McClellan said. “They’re really efficient. They’re not going to beat themselves. On our end, we’re playing free and confident. It’s fun like that in a championship environment.’’
For the Zags, the fun might just be getting started.
All-Tournament team: Nick Emery (G), BYU; Emmett Naar (G), Saint Mary’s; Joe Rahon (G) Saint Mary’s; Domantas Sabonis (F), Gonzaga; Kyle Wiltjer (F), Gonzaga. Wiltjer was named Most Outstanding Player.