March 10, 2015
2015 WCC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT CENTRAL
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED - WCC MEN'S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP - SEMIFINALS
LAS VEGAS - Based on the second half that Gonzaga rolled out against Pepperdine and the first half that BYU unleashed on Portland, the men's championship game of the West Coast Conference Tournament should be one holy heck of a duel.
After noodling around in the first half against Pepperdine to lead by just two, 35-33, the Zags raced to 44 points in the second half to post a 79-61 semifinal victory over the Waves.
BYU used 20 points from marksman Chase Fischer on 6-of-8 shooting from 3-point range to move out to a 42-24 first-half lead over the Pilots on the way to an 84-70 win in the nightcap.
In the second half, BYU's Kyle Collinsworth extended his NCAA record for triple-doubles in a season with six and in the process also tied the career mark held by LSU's Shaquille O'Neal. Collinsworth finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists.
"Kyle's floor game was about as tremendous as you can play,'' BYU coach Dave Rose said. "It's pretty unique.''
What made Collinsworth's record-extending and record-tying evening more poignant was the fact that a year ago, he tore his ACL in the WCC championship game. Slavish in his recovery, he made it back for a full 2014-15 season.
"I remember sitting on the couch raising my leg up a thousand times a day,'' he said. "I'm just grateful I got to play again. That's why I love this game. I'm just grateful.''
Chimed in Fischer, who finished with 24 points, "It's no surprise to me. I've seen how hard he works. When he said he raised his leg a thousand times a day, that's no joke. He's a special person.''
Thus did BYU hold up its end of the bargain and win to assure a rematch for Gonzaga. On Feb. 28, on the last night of the regular season and in the Kennel in Spokane, for heaven's sake, the Cougars defeated the Zags 73-70, Gonzaga's only loss in conference play.
"Hopefully, BYU wins so we can redeem ourselves for what they did to us on Senior Night,'' Gonzaga guard Byron Wesley said after his game and before BYU's.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few's team is now up to 31-2, with those two losses, to Arizona and BYU, coming by a total of six points.
"I was proud to see our guys come out with that kind of fire in the second half,'' Few said. "That's 31 wins. If you have 30 wins in college basketball, that's a hell of an accomplishment. I don't care if you're Duke or Kentucky.''
Tuesday's title game marks the 18th straight season in which Gonzaga reached the championship of the WCC, which says a lot without needing to say much else. It's the signature program in the conference and has been for a long, long time.
"Eighteen straight is a pretty amazing feat,'' Few admitted. "We know we're playing on (in the NCAA Tournament). The other teams are playing for their lives. Everybody wants a piece of us. These guys (his players) understand that. They can't storm the floor very often on us. That's something we're proud of.''
Tuesday's championship game pits balanced Gonzaga against guard-centric BYU, now 25-8 and hoping its hoops resume is solid enough to get an NCAA at-large berth should it lose to the Zags. It seems only right, the top seed vs. the second seed and the two highest-scoring teams in the conference. Since this is the Orleans Arena with its faux-Cajun theme, "Laissez les bons temps rouler," or let the good times roll and the 3-point shots rain.
"That's a tough one,'' Portland center Thomas van der Mars said when asked about the title game. "I can't tell you. BYU has a gear where they can score in bunches. Gonzaga is just good all-around. They're both great teams. I'm sure it's going to be a good game.''
His coach, Eric Reveno, was asked the same question and responded, "BYU seems to be playing with a ton of confidence now. They understand their roles. Gonzaga is so talented and versatile. It should be a great title game.''
By getting out in transition and gratefully accepting passes from his teammates, Wesley had 25 points and polished forward Kyle Wiltjer added 17 points and 9 rebounds after getting chiropractic treatment on a sore hip.
"I can't remember in recent memory'' having more fun in a game," reserve guard Kyle Dranginis said of Gonzaga's dominant second half. "That was one of the funnest (sic) halves since I've been here. It's fun out there. That was definitely enjoyable.''
Added Wesley, "That was easily the most energy we've had. Everybody was engaged. It's good we're starting to find ourselves again.''
BYU, meanwhile, whipped the ball around in its half-court offense with such efficiency that it had 12 assists by halftime to just two for Portland. Based on the available evidence, both the Zags and Cougars are playing their best basketball at a time of the year when teams that don't go home to sulk and prepare for next season.
The way BYU looked in the first half, Gonzaga had better be at its best on Tuesday night, when the Orleans Arena will be packed with the two most devoted fan bases in the conference. Monday night's single-season record attendance of 8,546 will surely be broken for the championship.
"As a group we're really confident,'' Fischer said. "The pace we play at allows us to score in bunches. In the first half it was really good ball movement. Even when we're not hitting shots we think we can beat anyone. The chemistry of this group makes our confidence go up.''
In the first half of the Pepperdine-Gonzaga game, the Waves' Jeremy Major, all of 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, offered his hand in sportsmanship to the Big Zag, 7-1, 290-pound Przemek Karnowski, and attempted to help him up after he had tumbled to the court. Emphasis on "attempted.''
The final word
Reflecting on his career at Portland and his time in the WCC, van der Mars said, "It's been nothing short of life-changing. It's been awesome.''
The final sight
The Commish (and former Kansas State hoopster), Lynn Holzman, in sneakers shooting baskets after the Portland-BYU nightcap.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.