SAN DIEGO – Mark Few has been on the bench for every one of Gonzaga’s 11 consecutive West Coast Conference men’s basketball championships. His teams have done it the easy way, running the WCC table three times and winning by four, five and a whopping six games, respectively.
His 2010-11 crew did it the hard way, and that made it even more special for Gonzaga’s 12th-year head coach.
Gonzaga, which was tied for fourth place midway through the WCC schedule, won eight straight conference games, the last a 68-31 stifling of San Diego in front of 3,882 Saturday at the Jenny Craig Pavilion to secure title No. 11. (Saint Mary’s defeated Portland to claim a share of its first championship since 1997. The Gaels will be the top seed and the Bulldogs No. 2 at the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas.)
“This one was the hardest and yet the sweetest,” Few said. “The fact that this group was able to dig all the way back from being three games behind is amazing. They showed character, resiliency and toughness. I’m really proud of them.
“The only team that has more consecutive conference championships is John Wooden, who is my biggest hero in coaching, and those UCLA teams were the greatest teams in college basketball. That’s really something.”
It was karaoke night inside the locker room as 5-6 players’ voices chimed in with several hip-hop songs.
“Our whole team plus the coaching staff was confident, and that’s what you need to be successful and go for your dreams,” said sophomore forward Elias Harris, who had 17 points and nine rebounds. “Nobody was really believing in us and they said this year wasn’t going to be our year. We’re pretty much playing our best basketball right now. We have some things to fix, but we just need to keep it up. And keep believing in us.”
This was one for the record books, on several different pages. Not only did the Bulldogs complete an improbable march to the title, they gave up the fewest points in a game since joining NCAA Division I in 1958-59. The previous low came in a 58-35 win over Carroll College in Nov., 1981.
It was also a record low for the Toreros in their 31 years as a D-I program.
“We knew our defense is what has been winning us games,” senior guard Steven Gray said. “If we made it difficult for them to score, our offense would take care of itself. Our bigs have been playing really well and getting a lot of good looks lately.”
That continued against the Toreros (6-23, 2-12 WCC), who suffered through a miserable shooting night (12 of 47, 25.5 percent). Harris scored 15 points in the first half. Robert Sacre, who broke out of a scoring slump with 13 points in Thursday’s win over Saint Mary’s, had 16 points in 20 minutes. Marquise Carter added nine points and five of GU’s 14 steals. Gray had seven rebounds and five assists.
San Diego, which scored 50 points in the second half of an upset win over Saint Mary’s 10 days ago, had five field goals and 12 points in the final 20 minutes. The Toreros’ 21 turnovers led to Gonzaga’s 34-5 edge in points off turnovers.
“We’ve been playing good defense this whole month,” Few said. “We kind of got in a shootout the other night (vs. Saint Mary’s) but we still had some really big stops down the stretch that basically won the game.”
After USD forward Chris Manresa’s dunk on the opening possession, Gonzaga (21-9, 11-3) scored the next 17 points, nine by Harris. The Toreros missed nine straight shots and went more than nine minutes between points.
The Bulldogs, leading 37-19 at half, outscored USD 17-3 to open the second half. The Toreros made just one field goal in the first 11 minutes.
“We just couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean and it snowballed on us,” said San Diego coach Billy Grier, the former GU assistant. “I just can’t fathom scoring 31 points in the modern era, no matter who you are playing.”
The Bulldogs made 49 percent of their shots, and 83.3 percent of their free throws (25 of 30). They outrebounded San Diego 39-25.
GU entertains Cal State Bakersfield for Senior Night on Monday.