WHAT WE'VE LEARNED - WCC BASKETBALL - CONFERENCE WEEKEND NO. 8
There is a reason No. 3/2 GONZAGA is 28-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. The Zags know how to win games when they are not at their best, like Saturday night in Moraga against a highly motivated SAINT MARY’S team.
The Gaels rode the emotion of Senior Night and the retirement ceremony of all-time great Patty Mills’ No. 13 jersey to a 40-29 halftime lead at sold-out McKeon Pavilion. Saint Mary’s was clearly the better team in the half as it used a half-dozen three-point shots to deal the Zags their biggest deficit of the season.
“The hardest thing to do in sports is when you’re playing bad, to flip it and start playing good,’’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after his team outscored the Gaels 12-0 in the final 2:47 to secure the win.
That’s exactly what the Zags did in outscoring the Gaels 41-20 in the second half as they clinched the West Coast Conference regular season title outright with a 16-0 record. Forward Kyle Wiltjer, fresh off his 45-point night at Pacific, had only two points in the first half but finished with 16 to go with 12 rebounds. Of his 14 second-half points, nine came in the last five minutes when Gonzaga tied the game and took the lead for good.
“Kyle was pressing early,’’ Few said. “I think that 45 points messed with his head. He settled down. He wasn’t trying to make something out of nothing. He was focused. He was taking the right shot at the right time. He was fantastic.’’
Given that an upset of the No. 3 team in the land would have boosted its RPI, a tough, competitive loss should not hurt Saint Mary’s power ranking too much. The Gaels proved themselves to be the clear next-best team in the conference going into the WCC Tournament next month in Las Vegas. Saint Mary’s is 20-7 overall and 12-4 in conference.
“Saint Mary’s came out and played lights-out,’’ Few said. “They were hitting shots. (Brad) Waldow is going one-on-one with two great post defenders in (Przemek) Karnowski and (Domantas) Sabonis.’’
In a typical Waldow game, the Gaels big man finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Waldow just needed a little more help. One factor in his team’s defeat was the defense Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos played on Kerry Carter. Pangos dogged Carter for most of the game and limited him to three points, nearly 10 below his average.
For the Zags, a comeback win on the road against a worthy opponent should steel them for the challenges of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga has met every challenge this season, even in its lone loss at Arizona in overtime in December, a game the Zags feel they should have won.
“No question,’’ Wiltjer said. “We haven’t had a lot of close games. That’s how we can learn who we are. We have each other’s back. If one guy gets it going, it snowballs.’’
The Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game lived up to its billing as the regular season game of the year in the WCC. That much we knew. What We Learned in addition to that was:
- Now that the regular season title has been checked off, the Zags have the luxury to do whatever they want in their last two games, both at home. They can rest some of their starting players, give playing time to that enviously deep bench or just keep on doing what they’ve been doing all season, piling up victory after victory. A 30-1 regular season mark would be awfully appealing.
- It might be wise to watch out for BYU and SAN FRANCISCO heading into the conference tournament. The Cougars have clinched third place in the regular season and have won four games in a row and six of their last seven. Though 6-10, the Dons have won three in a row, including Saturday’s surprise win at PEPPERDINE.
- Speaking of which, the Waves remain the most puzzling team in the conference, equally capable of highs and lows, often in the same week. With a win over LOYOLA MARYMOUNT on Saturday, the Waves will clinch fourth place and might do so even with a loss to the Lions if PORTLAND and SAN DIEGO lose one game this week. Losing four of the last five games, as Pep has done, is no way to prepare for the WCC tourney.
- It’s fitting the conference tournament is in Las Vegas. With one week of games to go, the conference can be summed up thusly: there is Gonzaga, there is Saint Mary’s, there is BYU and after that, it’s all dice in a hot, sweaty palm, ready to be scattered upon the felt. Just about anybody can beat anybody else in the conference, or so it seems. Should make for a fun tourney in a week’s time.
About an hour after the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game Waldow and Wiltjer shared at moment on the court, chatting briefly and shaking hands. It was the kind of sportsmanship that doesn’t get mentioned much these days. It was nice to see.
Stat line of the week
How could it be anything other than the game Wiltjer turned in at Pacific in leading Gonzaga to an 86-74 win? Playing all but two minutes, Wiltjer had a career-high 45 points along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. He shot 15 of 22 overall, 7 of 10 from three-point range and made 8 of 9 from the free throw line. Truly a masterful performance.
Wiltjer’s 45 is No. 13 in WCC single-game history, just behind the 46 scored by William “Bird” Averitt of Pepperdine in 1973 and Bo Kimble of LMU in 1990. Pretty good company. The conference’s high-water mark is 57 by Averitt vs. Nevada-Reno (as it was called then), also in ‘73.
Quote of the week
“They were longing to get lectured, I believe so. They certainly needed it.’’
That’s Gonzaga’s Few, describing halftime at Saint Mary’s when his team trailed 40-29 before rallying in the second half for win No. 28.
Tweet of the week
KOK @JitoKok - Feb. 15
I have the heart of a lion, and a lifetime ban from the zoo.
That’s San Diego’s Jito Kok, the funniest tweeter in the WCC.
Follow the three dots...
Not sure what to make of the fact that none of the WCC’s top four shot-blockers was born in the U.S., they being Kok (Netherlands), LMU’s Marin Mornar (Croatia), Portland’s Thomas van der Mars (Netherlands) and Volodymyr Gerun (Ukraine). … Here’s why coaches pound the importance of rebounding into their players: the top three teams in the conference, Gonzaga (+8.2), Saint Mary’s (+6.8) and BYU (+5.3), are also the top three in rebounding margin. … Portland’s Alec Wintering knows when to fire away. Of his 61 three-point shot attempts, he’s made 31 for a percentage of .508, tops in the conference. Compare that to BYU’s Chase Fischer, who has attempted 203 treys and made 84. … BYU leads the conference in assists (17.3), steals (7.4) and three-point shots made (8.6) per game.
A limited number of all-session passes were just released by the West Coast Conference Monday, Jan. 26 for the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas March 5-10 at the Orleans Arena. All-session passes are now available for sale online at WCCHoopsInVegas.com. All-session passes for the event at the Orleans Arena in the casino of the same name cost $175 for all nine men's games and all nine women's games, 18 games in all.
Breaking it down, that's $9.72 per game for the $175 package. Further ticket information is available below: HERE or log on to WCChoopsInVegas.com.
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.