LAS VEGAS - A student in the Saint Mary's basketball cheering section began wildly waving her homemade sign, as if to shamelessly beg for a retort.
It read, “What’s a Zag?”
On Monday night, a “Zag” was West Coast Conference tournament champion for the 11th time in the past 13 seasons.
There was yelling and taunting between the loyal rooters of both programs.
At critical moments when bodies piled up, tension existed between the two regular season co-champions. Blood was shed – again.
But with the outcome up in the air, the team that has built its reputation on offense – second-seeded Gonzaga – instead put the clamps on WCC player of the year Mickey McConnell and his teammates to post a more-than-satisfying 75-63 victory over the Gaels in front of 7,186 at the Orleans Arena.
Steven Gray led Gonzaga with 15 points. Robert Sacre added 12 – eight coming in the final 3 minutes, 9 seconds.
And Marquise Carter, who five weeks ago wasn’t sure what kind of role he would carve out with this team, chipped in 11 points en route to conference tournament MVP honors.
McConnell led all scorers with 24, and teammate Matthew Dellavedova had 21.
Forced to settle for difficult shots or fallaway 3-pointers in the final 9:05, neither scored a field goal. The top-seeded Gaels had one field goal in that span.
“We switched our ball-screen coverage pretty much every other time out, so hopefully we disrupted some of their rhythm,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It was probably the best job (we’ve done) in the three (WCC tournament) games.”
As a result, all the automatic berth-gaining Zags have to do between now and the NCAA’s selection show Sunday is lounge around and breathe easy. They are in the field of 68.
“I can’t imagine what kind of feeling that would be, having that sort of stress on a day in my last three years has been more of a celebration than anything,” Gray said. “It’s a great feeling to know we’re in.”
For a second consecutive season, Gray suffered a scary injury. Last year, it was a torn fingernail. On Monday, it was a nasty gash suffered from a collision with teammate Sam Dower on a drive to the basket.
Once his head hit the ground, blood began pouring out above his left eye. He left the game to receive four stitches from team athletic trainers.
“Seems like the last two years, I come out of here with a few injuries, or bleeding from somewhere,” Gray said. “It’s kind of the norm, I guess.”
A couple months ago, the thought of having Gray on the bench, or in the locker room during a game, might have unsettled Few. Not now. Not with the emergence of Carter and David Stockton, son of former Gonzaga star and NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton.
Stockton scored seven points, but he added three assists and had no turnovers.
“He gives them transition,” St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “As soon as he comes into the game, the tempo goes up. He’s a good passer. That hurt us a lot.”
The Gaels tied it for the final time at 53 on Rob Jones’ baseline jumper at the 9:05 mark of the second half.
And that was it. The Zags tried keeping the ball out of McConnell’s hands, and stuck with non-shooters.
Dellavedova, who had much success in the first two meetings – and even in the first half Monday – driving into the lane and getting his high-arcing shots to fall, suddenly it stopped in the second half.
On one play, his 10-footer over two defenders went extra high, and barely hit rim as he crashed to the floor. He got up, looked at an official and asked, “Nothing?”
Meanwhile, Stockton’s top-of-the-arc 3-pointer highlighted an 8-0 Zags run over a three-minute span, giving Gonzaga a 61-53 lead with 5:27 remaining.
After the game, Few – seeing his team clinch its 10th automatic NCAA berth under his watch – called this WCC tournament triumph the sweetest he and his staff have experienced.
“I just got done telling them, I haven’t been more proud of a group of guys,” Few said. “From where we were to where we are now has been an incredible journey, and it’s taught me a lot – a lot about the resilience of kids, and a team.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 email@example.com