LAS VEGAS - Don't leave it to the rabid student-cheering sections, or program followers to tell you what they've wanted to see materialize in the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament.
The top teams want it as well.And now it’s here – regular-season co-champions Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will battle for the tourney title tonight at the Orleans Arena.
The second-seeded Zags had their hands full much of the second half with No. 3 seed San Francisco before escaping with a 71-67 victory. Saint Mary’s, the top seed, defeated No. 4 seed Santa Clara, 73-64, in the other semifinal.
“I’d like to get a crack at the Zags,” Saint Mary’s forward Rob Jones said. “We’ve beat San Francisco twice, and only beat the Zags one ... so you always want a little payback.”
Payback will be the recurring theme tonight, even if the two programs are already in good position to receive NCAA bids.
Gonzaga won the inaugural Las Vegas-hosted WCC tournament championship over the Gaels in 2009. A year ago, Saint Mary’s returned the favor.
But neither team dispatched its semifinal opponent in typical knockout style – especially the Zags, whose average margin of victory in their previous two tournament semifinals was 25 points.
Largely, their top scorers – Steven Gray, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris – never impacted the outcome. It came down to a few hustle defensive plays in the final minute to preserve this nail-biter.
It had to be that way as Gonzaga went the final 7 minutes, 5 seconds without a field goal – a David Stockton 3-pointer that put the Zags up, 61-51.
The Dons followed with a 9-1 run, capped by Angelo Caloiaro’s two free throws, to cut it to 62-60 at the 2:48 mark.
And they had three chances to tie – or take the lead with a 3-pointer – but squandered them all:
• The first one came when Demetri Goodson knocked the ball away from Rashad Green as the guard penetrated the lane. Sacre grabbed it and called a timeout with 1:59 to go.
• Next time down, Green had a full head of steam as he charged into the lane. Sacre slid over, put both his arms on his chest and took a charge at the 1:36 mark.
• And finally Gonzaga’s Mike Hart – substituted in strictly for defensive purposes – chased Green along the baseline as the guard dribbled to find a crease, grabbed the ball from behind and tip-toed his way to stay in bounds for another San Francisco turnover with 45 seconds to go.
Gonzaga’s Marquise Carter made five free throws in the final 42.8 seconds to give the Zags a little bit of operating room, although the Dons had one final boneheaded sequence.
With his team trailing 68-65, Caloiaro stole an inbounds pass with 7.7 seconds to go. While diving to the floor, someone on the bench tried calling a timeout – when the Dons had none remaining. Carter made one of the two free throws on the technical foul.
No. 1 seed SAINT MARY’S (24-7) vs. No. 2 seed GONZAGA (23-9)
6 p.m., Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
TV: ESPN RADIO: None
At Stake: Winner gets an automatic berth in NCAA tournament.
SERIES: The teams split two games this season – Gonzaga lost in Spokane, 73-71, on Jan. 27 but defeated the Gaels, 89-85, in overtime on Feb. 24.
SCOUTING REPORT: The winner not only takes the season series, but these two are the only WCC tournament champions crowned at this site (Gonzaga in 2009, St. Mary’s last season).
Todd Milles, staff writer