LAS VEGAS — This gambling mecca has long been known as Sin City, but Gonzaga basketball fans favor another nickname for Las Vegas in early March: Spokane South.
Thousands of Gonzaga fans have again flooded Las Vegas, giving the Bulldogs a home-away-from-home advantage at the West Coast Conference men’s and women’s tournaments.
The Bulldogs men have rewarded their faithful by reaching the championship game 16 straight years; the women have made it seven in a row. That includes every title game all five years the tournaments have been held at the Orleans Arena, where the majority of seats at Gonzaga’s games – particularly for the women – are occupied by Bulldogs fans.
That will be the case again today in the championship games when the top-ranked Gonzaga men (30-2) take on arch-rival Saint Mary’s (26-5) at 6 p.m. on ESPN, and the Gonzaga women (26-5) face San Diego (21-8) at 1 p.m. on ESPNU.
Gonzaga women’s coach Kelly Graves said Sunday that senior guard Taelor Karr, the WCC’s Most Valuable Player, is “questionable” because of a lower-back injury suffered in Saturday’s semifinal against BYU.
Both Gonzaga teams are seeded No. 1; both opponents are seeded No. 2. The WCC tournament champions earn automatic bids for March Madness. But the Gonzaga men, ranked No. 1 in the nation, might be the only one guaranteed an NCAA berth regardless of today’s outcome.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s tangle in the men’s championship game for the fifth consecutive year. They’ve won in alternating years the past four seasons, with the Gaels triumphing in overtime last year.
“It’s definitely a fierce rivalry,” Saint Mary’s star Matthew Dellavedova said.
“A lot of emotion, a lot of energy,” Gonzaga’s Elias Harris said.
Gonzaga owns 83-78 and 77-60 wins over Saint Mary’s this season. Dellavedova is first in the WCC with 6.4 assists and leads the Gaels in scoring with an average of 16.2 points a game.
“He’s one of the best point guards in the nation,” Harris said.
Forward Kelly Olynyk, one of 15 finalists for the Wooden Award as the national player of the year, averages 17.3 points and 7.0 rebounds for Gonzaga.
“He’s a great player,” said Saint Mary’s Brad Waldow, who will guard Olynyk. “He’s a post player, a 7-footer, that has really good dribbling and ballhandling skills.”
The Gonzaga women beat San Diego, 77-57, and, 62-50, but the teams haven’t met since Jan. 19. Graves said the Toreros have improved “immensely” since then, and Toreros coach Cindy Fisher agrees.
“I feel very confident that we are a much better basketball team now,” Fisher said.
The Bulldogs are riding a 14-game winning streak. San Diego has won six straight.
San Diego is led by guard Amy Kame, a 6-foot junior who ranks among the WCC leaders with 16.0 points, 4.0 assists and 2.6 steals. Kame will be guarded by Jazmine Redmon, the WCC defensive player of the year.
Kame is second in the WCC in steals behind Gonzaga junior guard Haiden Palmer, who averages 3.0. Palmer leads the Bulldogs’ balanced offense with 12.2 points.
Gonzaga lost to San Diego in the 2008 title game, then won three straight championships before bowing to BYU in the 2012 title game.