From a tie for fourth place to fourth place alone. From a tie for third place to a tie for second place. And now, solo second place.
The Gonzaga men’s basketball team has made up quite a bit of ground the last three weeks. The Bulldogs continued their climb up the West Coast Conference standings by handling San Francisco 70-53 in front of 6,000 Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Gonzaga’s victory sets up a showdown with Saint Mary’s (22-6, 10-2) on Thursday. A victory in Moraga and Saturday in San Diego would guarantee Gonzaga (19-9, 9-3) at least a share of its 11th consecutive WCC crown. USF (14-13, 8-4) dropped into third place.
“We’re playing for a league championship on the last week of the year, you can’t ask for anything else,” head coach Mark Few said. “These guys deserve credit for putting us in that position. Just a great job of taking it game by game and not collapsing under the gloom and doom.”
The Bulldogs left the gloom of a three-game WCC losing streak behind by winning their last six conference games. The key: All six foes were held under 38-percent shooting. San Francisco, which scored 96 points in an overtime win against GU last month, had the high-water mark at 37.7 percent.
“Everyone’s starting to buy in and dedicated to guarding their man and making them take tough shots,” senior guard Steven Gray said. “If you do that, the percentages should play out.”
Gonzaga was solid at both ends of the court. The Zags, leading by two at half, made their first eight shots of the second half, including Marquise Carter’s three rapid-fire 3s and treys by Gray and Demetri Goodson, to take command at 55-39.
The Bulldogs finished with 16 assists and a season-low seven turnovers, two of those coming in the final five minutes when the issued had been decided.
“We were just moving the ball and we did a better job with shot selection,” Gray said. “That could get better, especially in my case, but we got a lot of good looks. Marquise had a great weekend and that had a lot to do with it. It opened up so much for everyone else.”
Gray contributed 19 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Elias Harris had 14 points and seven boards. Carter added five rebounds, three assists and three steals. Harris, Robert Sacre and Sam Dower combined for five assists as GU operated inside-outside effectively.
“We knew they were going to double-team, triple us, and try to get us in a frenzy,” Dower said. “So we passed it out and guys were wide open.”
Carter followed up his 3s with an 18-footer that gave Gonzaga its first double-digit lead, 49-39.
“I hit the first shot, any good player is going to take the next one when it’s open,” Carter said.
At the tail end of the Bulldogs’ 21-7 run, USF had six straight empty possessions (three turnovers and three missed shots).
“They were hurting us when we were helping and they were kicking it out,” Carter said. “We stopped doing that (in the second half) and we kind of held them.”
Michael Williams scored 13 points, the only Don with more than eight. USF finished with eight assists and 18 turnovers. The Dons played without starting center Perris Blackwell (flu) for the second straight game. Starting wing Rashad Green took a shot to his head and appeared to be dazed when he left with 5:10 remaining. He was taken to the hospital for further evaluation.
“We’re still a team that is very much influenced by how we’re playing offensively and it can’t be that way,” USF coach Rex Walters said. “If you still guard, you’ll get easier shots, transition layups, better drives and kicks. It was two-fold. We didn’t guard well and then we got rushed (offensively).”
Carter’s hot stretch has coincided with GU’s six-game WCC winning streak. He has four double-figures scoring games in that span.
“He’s comfortable, he’s confident,” Few said. “The percentages on the stats aren’t indicative of just how good a shooter he is. Now he’s finding his shots and we’re finding him. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
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