MORAGA, Calif. – It was a contest so packed with drama and clutch plays both ways, it left the normally talkative Robert Sacre almost at a loss for words.
“Wow,” the junior center said inside Gonzaga’s jubilant locker room. “I don’t know if I have (played in a better game). I’m pretty speechless right now. It was a good win. A really good win.”
After 10 seasons, the Bulldogs have become pretty attached to the West Coast Conference regular-season men’s basketball title and they weren’t ready to hand it over to Saint Mary’s on Thursday. Gonzaga scored the game’s last six points at the free-throw line, four by Sam Dower and two by Sacre, to outlast the Gaels 89-85 in an overtime thriller witnessed by 3,500 at McKeon Pavilion.
The victory moved Gonzaga (20-9, 10-3 WCC) into a first-place tie with the Gaels (22-7, 10-3). The Bulldogs would earn at least a share of their 11th consecutive title if they defeat San Diego on Saturday. Gonzaga clinched no worse than the second seed for the WCC tournament, which means the Bulldogs will have a bye into the semifinals.
Saint Mary’s, which has dropped three straight, entertains Portland on Saturday and a victory would guarantee the Gaels at least a share of their first crown since 1997.
“That was a high-level affair,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team trailed Saint Mary’s by three games after falling to the Gaels 73-71 in Spokane last month. “Both teams played really good. I’m proud of our guys. They took the game plan to heart, stuck with it to the end and we won it with our defense and free-throw shooting.”
In overtime, Gonzaga’s first possession looked to be going nowhere. Demetri Goodson drove into the lane and couldn’t find an outlet pass, but he calmly hit a turnaround jumper from 13 feet. Sacre scored inside and Elias Harris’ made 1 of 2 free throws as GU took an 81-76 lead.
Back came the Gaels as Matthew Dellavedova scored four straight points. SMC had a chance to take the lead, but Mitchell Young missed from 4 feet and Steven Gray was fouled on the rebound. He made both free throws and Gonzaga was in front 83-80 with 1:24 left.
Dellavedova drew Gray’s fifth foul on a drive to the basket and converted two free throws with 1:04 remaining. Gonzaga turned the ball over and Mike Hart was called for a foul out front on Dellavedova, who made both free throws to give Saint Mary’s the lead, 84-83.
Dower, who led Gonzaga with 21 points, answered with two free throws, returning the lead to Gonzaga 85-84 with 19.9 seconds remaining.
“It was a tight game and I knew I had to make them,” said Dower, who scored 15 of his 21 points in the first half. “That’s where repetition comes in and I’ve been practicing my free throws. It was pretty crazy out there. We just had to give it our all because they gave us one at home and I felt like we owed them one.”
McConnell drove into the lane but couldn’t finish and Sacre was fouled by McConnell – his fifth – after securing the rebound. Sacre made both free throws and Gonzaga led by three.
“The best person to foul,” said Sacre, when asked what he was thinking at the free-throw line. “That’s what I’m thinking in my mind. I won’t miss in the clutch and if I do, I’ll make up for it.”
Rather than risk a potential tying 3-pointer – the Gaels had already made 10 3s – Gonzaga elected to foul. Stephen Holt made 1 of 2 foul shots and the Gaels quickly fouled Dower. The 80 percent free-throw shooter made two more, boosting GU’s lead to 89-85 with 9.8 seconds left.
Dellavedova and Clint Steindl each missed long 3s and Gonzaga celebrated a hard-fought victory.
“We weren’t even thinking about the 10 straight titles,” Sacre said. “It was, ‘We have a game, we have to redeem ourselves.’ They got us (in Spokane) and we needed to come in here and beat them.”