Saint Mary’s senior guard Mickey McConnell was shut out when he visited the McCarthey Athletic Center last January.
McConnell more than made up for that scoreless performance with an exceptional effort Thursday, scoring 27 points and hitting a 15-foot shot with 1.2 seconds remaining to lift the Gaels to a 73-71 victory over Gonzaga.
McConnell’s field goal gave Saint Mary’s (18-3, 6-0 WCC) its first win in Spokane since 1995 and kept the Gaels in the WCC driver’s seat. The Bulldogs (13-8, 3-3), now tied for fourth, have dropped three consecutive WCC games for the first time in 14 seasons and their run of conference titles appears likely to end at 10.
McConnell actually began turning his luck around against Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament championship game last March in Las Vegas. He scored 26 points in the Gaels’ victory at the Orleans Arena. He was even better Thursday, delivering three 3-pointers, grabbing four rebounds and handing out six assists.
McConnell was being defended by Demetri Goodson, but he came around a screen and center Robert Sacre switched onto the Gaels’ guard. McConnell worked his way to the left edge of the free-throw line and hit a tough, leaning 15-footer over Sacre.
“We couldn’t have guarded it any better,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “but he still had the moxie to get it up there. I don’t know how many of those he could make out of 10, but to his credit he stepped up and hit it.”
McConnell said Saint Mary’s was focused on playing tougher on the road, particularly after losing 89-70 to Vanderbilt in Nashville last Saturday.
“It’s a good start,” he said. “Our bigs fought and battled. Their bigs are huge and some of the best in our league, so they definitely fought the whole game and it was good for us to be in a tight situation and pull one out.”
The Bulldogs led 69-68 after Sacre made two free throws with 2:12 left. McConnell’s jumper returned the lead to Saint Mary’s and Mitchell Young’s free throw gave the Gaels a 71-69 edge with 19.9 seconds left.
Gonzaga’s Marquise Carter tied it up with two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining. McConnell took the inbound pass and made the game-winner. Goodson’s desperation shot from 65 feet was off line and the Gaels celebrated a rare victory in Spokane.
“He hit a hell of a shot,” Sacre said. “I just knew I couldn’t foul in a tie game, so I kept my hands back and he hit the shot.”
McConnell’s bucket ended a thrilling contest that saw 12 lead changes and eight ties.
“It was a great game, back and forth with all kinds of different people making big plays,” Few said. “They made the last big play of the game.”
Gonzaga led by two at half, but the Gaels opened the second half with a 13-5 run, capped by Rob Jones’ 3-pointer. Sam Dower, who averages just 11.3 minutes per game, brought the Zags back with a dunk, a jumper, a 3-pointer and a soft bank shot as Gonzaga led 51-50.
Steven Gray, after a sluggish first half, scored Gonzaga’s next six points, but the senior guard eventually fouled out with 4:58 left on a charging foul. Sacre, who scored 15 points in the first half, was also in foul trouble most of the second half.
“We switched him off (to guard) somebody we thought he could stay out of foul trouble and he gets an offensive foul,” Few said. “Tough call.”
Four Zags accounted for 63 of Gonzaga’s 71 points. Elias Harris and Sacre each had 17. Dower finished with 15, 13 in the second half, and Gray added 14 points.
The Bulldogs made 44.6 percent of their shots, warming up to 54 percent in the second half.
Matthew Dellavedova and Jones each scored 15 points for the Gaels, who made 48.3 percent of their shots. After a hot start from beyond the 3-point line, SMC finished 8 of 23 (34.8 percent).
Gonzaga led early 11-2, but the Gaels responded with two 3-pointers by Dellavedova and another by McConnell from 28 feet.
That would become a recurring theme in the first half. GU, fueled by eight straight points by Sacre, led 26-21 with 6:46 left, but Saint Mary’s rallied with seven consecutive points to take its only lead of the half, 28-26. Gonzaga answered with a 9-0 spurt, capped by Harris’ 13-foot jumper, and the Zags led by six. Dellavedova connected on his third 3 of the half and added two free throws as Saint Mary’s closed within two at half.
“Those guards are really smart and they’re always going to keep them in games,” Few said. “We would have a couple of empty possessions and they’d take advantage of it.”