Zags handle St. Mary’s with big margin
LAS VEGAS — Coach Mark Few sensed the gathering inevitability from the opening minutes of Gonzaga’s final landslide victory in a conference season full of them.
When the deeply talented, tournament-tested Zags get rolling, even their toughest West Coast Conference rival is just a trifling bump on the road to bigger stages and better opponents in another NCAA tournament.
Josh Heytvelt scored 17 points, Micah Downs added 12 points and 12 rebounds, and No. 12 Gonzaga romped to its 11th consecutive NCAA appearance with an 83-58 victory over Saint Mary’s and struggling star Patty Mills on Monday night in the WCC final.
Matt Bouldin had 14 points and seven assists for the relentless Zags (26-5) in a win showcasing the balance that could make them a March nightmare. With six Zags scoring in double figures and playing even better on defense, they followed up their perfect regular-season conference slate with a second blowout win in the WCC tournament, giving them 19 victories in their last 20 games.
“If we play like that in the NCAA tournament, we’re going to go a really, really, really long way,” Few said. “We’re playing better than we have all year. … When a team puts it together like that over the course of a weekend, it’s a beautiful sight to see.”
Gonzaga, which moved up two spots in Monday’s Top 25 poll after routing Santa Clara in the semifinals, has won eight of the last 12 WCC tournaments — but few were so smoothly accomplished. The Zags have won 16 straight conference games, and they’ve beaten Saint Mary’s in 26 of their last 29 meetings, preventing a true WCC rivalry from developing.
With Mills going 2-for-16 in his second game back from a broken hand, Saint Mary’s (25-6) never threatened the Zags in a loss that endangers the Gaels’ hopes for the first back-to-back NCAA tournament bids in school history.
There are no such concerns for Gonzaga, which lost the WCC tournament final to San Diego last year. The Zags’ only blemish since New Year’s Day is a nonconference loss to No. 4 Memphis.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time,” Bouldin said. “I thought our momentum was great coming into this weekend. We have eight or nine guys who can score 20 in a night. I think that’s our strength by far, and we all play together on defense, too.”
Downs has the lowest scoring average among the Zags’ five starters, but he clinched the tournament MVP award with 10 points and 10 rebounds in the first half against the Gaels.
“It just feels good to come out and prove to people that we are the best team in the conference when people were doubting us,” Downs said.
Saint Mary’s finished with 19-for-66 shooting, falling behind by 13 points at halftime and never mounting a rally. Mills scored five points, missing all seven of his 3-point attempts before sitting out much of the second half, and his teammates couldn’t make up for the Australian sophomore’s woes.
“When you shoot as bad as that, you have to look for something else to do, and I didn’t do either,” Mills said. “You have to fight through it. It’s a learning experience. You go back home and learn from that and move on. My hand is fine. I’m not going to use it as an excuse.”
Mills had been out of the Gaels’ lineup since he broke two bones in his right hand during a game at Gonzaga on Jan. 29. While Mills underwent surgery, Saint Mary’s lost four of five games before rallying with five straight wins to close the regular season.
Diamon Simpson had 19 points and nine rebounds, and Omar Samhan added 17 points and nine rebounds for the Gaels, who must hope the NCAA selection committee appreciates their potential enough to overlook a poor performance in their biggest game of the season.
“We’ll just say some prayers on Saturday night,” Samhan said. “God, I’d love to be in the tournament again … but we wouldn’t have to worry about it at all if we had taken care of business tonight.”
Gonzaga’s fans are used to traveling at tournament time, so they had no trouble filling the bulk of the seats at the Orleans Arena for the WCC’s first neutral-site tournament. Saint Mary’s was represented by several hundred Bay Area faithful, but they were decidedly outnumbered by the irascible Gonzaga supporters who booed Mills early and chanted “N-I-T, N-I-T” late.
The night got off to an ominous start for the Gaels, who were assessed a technical foul for dunking in the pregame warmup, although Bouldin only made one of two free throws. Saint Mary’s then missed its first eight shots while Gonzaga built a 10-point lead in the opening 41/2 minutes, but Samhan helped the Gaels stay close.
Mills returned to practice a week ago, and he scored 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting in the Gaels’ semifinal win over Portland, which sent them to their first conference title game since 2005. He missed his first seven shots against Gonzaga before making a tough layup while getting fouled with 1:51 left, but was 1-for-10 in the first half.