Senior guard Matt Bouldin left Gonzaga’s locker room with a bag of ice on his right ankle and a net and WCC champions placard in his right hand.
Bouldin and the rest of the Bulldogs put in a full day at the office, hitting free throws late and getting a couple of key defensive stops to hold off upset-minded San Francisco 75-69 to secure an outright WCC basketball title in front of 6,000 Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The 18th-ranked Bulldogs (24-5, 12-2), winners of 10 consecutive conference titles, including nine solo, clipped the nets after the victory. Bouldin, who has been instrumental in the last four championships, contributed 11 points, five assists and five rebounds.
“It does feel a little different than the others,” said Bouldin, who tweaked his ankle with 5:25 remaining but didn’t miss any time after having his ankle re-taped during a timeout. “We didn’t know what the expectations were coming in (to the season). A lot of teams thought they had us, but we came out and got it done.”
Gonzaga needed all of its resolve to turn back the Dons, who beat GU last month in San Francisco. San Francisco (12-17, 7-7), which will be the No. 4 seed at the WCC tournament, led by 10 early and rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final 6 minutes to make the Bulldogs earn their undisputed crown.
The Bulldogs, who have had issues at the free-throw line, connected on 7 of 8 in the final 3:10 to keep USF at bay after it had closed within three points on two occasions. Robert Sacre and Steven Gray each went 2 of 2 at the stripe as Gonzaga led 72-67.
Forward Moustapha Diarra’s putback cut the deficit to three, but Sacre made 1 of 2 free throws with 17.5 ticks left to make it a two-possession game. Sacre drew a charging foul on guard Kwame Vaughn and Bouldin hit a pair of free throws to seal the Zags’ third straight win.
“We missed some free throws (8 of 19 in the second half), that hurt us, some turnovers and a couple of calls where I thought, hey, if it goes one way instead of the way it went all of a sudden we’re at the line as opposed to them taking the ball out of bounds,” USF coach Rex Walters said. “We just have to be able to make more plays.”
Gonzaga trailed 16-6 after San Francisco’s Dior Lowhorn struck for seven quick points. The Zags answered with a big contribution from reserves Manny Arop, Kelly Olynyk and Bol Kong to score the next 14 points and 21 of 23. But Gonzaga’s 27-18 lead melted away as Vaughn and Dontae Bryant broke down GU’s defense with dribble penetration.
Vaughn had 12 points. Bryant added nine points and eight assists, often driving and dishing to Diarra or Angelo Caloiaro for open looks. The guards would have done more damage if not for Sacre’s four blocks.
“We put (Sacre) in a bad way a lot with how much penetration we allowed,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He was like a goalie back there with guys firing shots right and left. He covered up as best he could.”
GU led 35-33 at half and stretched it to 65-55 as Elias Harris scored 13 of his 17 points in the first 12 minutes of the second half.
Arop’s 3 put Gonzaga in front 68-60 but USF kept the pressure on with Bryant’s 3-pointer, Lowhorn’s two free throws and Diarra’s basket on a feed from Bryant. Gonzaga’s defense made a couple of important stands as Arop deflected Lowhorn’s 3-point attempt and Perris Blackwell’s shot was rejected by Sacre.
“They’re just a really good team,” said Sacre, who had 13 points. “I don’t feel their record shows what they’re capable of.”
Gonzaga shot 52 percent to USF’s 42.4, but the Dons grabbed 14 offensive rebounds and won the boards 33-30.
Gonzaga 75, San Francisco 69
Percentages: FG .424, FT .636. 3-Point Goals: 5-14, .357 (Caloiaro 2-6, Lowhorn 1-3, Bryant 1-3, Vaughn 1-1, Green 0-1). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 0. Turnovers: 9 (Vaughn 3). Steals: 4 (Bryant 2). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .517, FT .818. 3-Point Goals: 5-15, .333 (Bouldin 1-6, Harris 1-2, Arop 1-1, Olynyk 1-1, Kong 1-1, Gray 0-4). Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 6 (Sacre 4). Turnovers: 10 (Gray 3). Steals: 4 (Sacre 2). Technical Fouls: None.
Halftime–Gonzaga 35, San Francisco 33. A–6,000.