If coach Mark Few at all needed to be reminded what his Zags were up against Monday in the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals, all he needed to do was think back to a year ago.
Last season, a desperate Gonzaga team had to fight, scratch and claw its way to the WCC crown to earn an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
And now, that is the type of team the Bulldogs are trying to fend off.
To Santa Clara’s credit, after losing regular-season games by 31 and 35 points to the Zags in the regular season, the third game was much, much more competitive Monday night.
But No. 4 Gonzaga won, 77-68, at the Orleans Arena.
For the 20th consecutive season, the Zags (31-1) will play for the WCC title. They will face Saint Mary’s, which defeated BYU, 81-50, in Monday’s late semifinal.
Gonzaga has won the past four conference championships and will try to become the first school in league history to win five in a row.
As much as Few should be used to it, hearing that number — 20 — still blows his mind.
“I take it personally,” Few said. “Tons of people in Spokane … spend a good portion of their hard-earned money to come down here for a week.
“Our guys have a done an amazing job of making their trips worthwhile. A lot of teams haven’t, if you look across the landscape of conference tournaments.”
Indeed, the Orleans Arena has become a second home away from the McCarthey Athletic Center — or what’s commonly known as “The New Kennel.”
The Zags grabbed a 56-41 lead on Zach Collins’ layup with 11:01 remaining.
Sensing they were on the verge of another double-digit blowout, the Gonzaga faithful roared in approval.
They sat down in a hurry.
Santa Clara ripped off a 10-0 run in just less than two minutes to slice the Zags’ lead to 56-51.
“I mean, it is March,” Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “Everyone is playing for their lives. We don’t think anything is going to be easy in this month. We’re expecting a fistfight every time we step on the floor from here on out.”
Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge was sensational, pouring in a game-high 32 points, including four 3-pointers. He did everything he could to keep the Broncos close.
But Williams-Goss nearly matched him with 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting. His 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:40 to go gave the Zags a little breathing room, 71-63. And 55 seconds later, Collins hit another 3-pointer to wrap it up the school’s 13th consecutive WCC tournament victory.
“(Teams like Santa Clara) are playing for their one shot at the NCAA tournament that they’ve never, ever had in their careers,” Few said.
“It’s just not that easy in March.”