February 23, 2011 in Sports

Gonzaga vs. St. Mary’s in battle of WCC’s best

By The Spokesman-Review

MORAGA, Calif. – Gonzaga coach Mark Few generally doesn’t get too worked up about milestones and records, but he does hold the West Coast Conference regular-season title in high regard.

With 10 consecutive conference championships, Few is equally proud of Gonzaga’s lofty perch in the NCAA Division I record book.

“It’s over eight weeks and you play on everybody’s turf,” Few said of the challenge of the conference season. “To do it 10 times, when you start looking at the company you’re keeping you’re talking about (legendary UCLA coach) John Wooden and (Jerry Tarkanian) Tark’s teams (at UNLV). It’s one of the best stories in college basketball over the last 20-30 years.

“It just makes you want to keep it going, as a competitor.”

That is what’s at stake, along with the implications on WCC tournament seeding and NCAA tournament at-large resumes, when Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s hook up Thursday night at sold-out McKeon Pavilion. The Gaels (22-6, 10-2 WCC), reeling a bit after two straight defeats, including an upset by San Diego last week that revived Gonzaga’s title hopes, clinch their first crown since 1997 with a victory.

A win over Saint Mary’s, which has lost only once at home, to Utah State last Saturday, and another over San Diego on Saturday would guarantee Gonzaga (19-9, 9-3) at least a share of title No. 11, trailing only UCLA’s 13-year run (1967-79, Pac-8/10) as the longest in D-I history. GU is tied with Connecticut (1951-60, Yankee) and UNLV (1983-92, Big West).

“We’ve almost climbed out of the hole, but this last little bit, the last 10 meters of this hole is probably the steepest, darkest and toughest part,” Few said. “We’ll see if we’re up to the task.”

Gonzaga has been in pursuit of Saint Mary’s, which has finished second six of the last seven years, and won its first six WCC games, including a 73-71 victory in Spokane. The Bulldogs have won their last six conference games to claw back into the race.

“Every game counted,” center Rob Sacre said. “It wasn’t like that in the years I’ve been here. These last few have been pretty important.”

The Gaels have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, led by senior guard Mickey McConnell, backcourt mate Matthew Dellavedova and forward Rob Jones. The trio combines for 43 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists per game. Sophomore forward Mitchell Young has averaged 14.2 points and 7.2 boards over the last five games to lift his season averages to 10.4 points and five rebounds.

“They spread you out and have really good decision-makers,” senior guard Steven Gray said. “First we have to take away the easy jump shots, they’re going to make all of those and throw in a couple of tough ones, too.”

Saint Mary’s blew an eight-point halftime lead against San Diego and a nine-point halftime lead versus Utah State. The Gaels were outscored by a combined 35 points in those losses. Jones appeared to suffer a rib injury against San Diego and was limited to two points in 30 minutes. He fouled out after scoring nine points in 16 minutes against Utah State.

“He’s that ‘4’ man that can stretch it, he made two 3s against us, and now you have to guard four guys out there. When he’s out, you can help on the ball screen like you do on a lot of the other teams,” Few said. “McConnell is going to make the right read 10 times out of 10 and Dellavedova is going to make the right read nine out of 10. And the other guys can shoot the daylights out of it.”

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