LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga’s Marquise Carter showed why he was voted WCC newcomer of the year and reserve wing Mike Hart showed why head coach Mark Few trusts him in critical defensive situations.
Second-seeded Gonzaga repelled numerous second-half rallies by No. 3 San Francisco as Carter hit seven free throws in the final 43 seconds and the Bulldogs hung on for a 71-67 victory in the WCC men’s basketball tournament semifinals Sunday in front of 7,489 at the Orleans Arena.
“The coaches make sure we get up a lot of free throws, even when we’re tired,” said Carter, who finished 10 of 12 at the free-throw line. “Stepping to the line, it seems really relaxing for me.”
Carter led a balanced GU attack with a team-high 18 points, helping Gonzaga (23-9) advance to the title game for the 14th straight season. Top-seeded Saint Mary’s (24-7) defeated No. 4 Santa Clara 73-64. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s shared the WCC regular-season title, splitting two thrillers that came down to the closing seconds.
Gonzaga set up a third showdown with Saint Mary’s, but it wasn’t easy. The Bulldogs built a 10-point halftime lead, but they hit a major offensive dry spell in the second half as USF closed within 62-60.
The Dons had several chances to tie or take the lead, but Rashad Green committed a turnover and then was called for a charging foul.
Hart then stripped the ball from Green on a baseline drive and Carter was fouled with 42.8 seconds left. Carter hit both free throws to give GU a 64-60 lead. Carter hit two free throws with 27.8 seconds left and again with 19.7 seconds remaining, the latter two giving Gonzaga a 68-62 edge.
“Mike is just flat-out our best defensive player and it’s not even close,” Few said. “If we can get him in there when we go with offense-defense (substitutions), or we can use our timeouts to get an offensive team in there that’s what we’re going to do. Donny (Daniels, GU assistant coach) calls him the best five-minute player in America.”
Still, Gonzaga’s work wasn’t done. Michael Williams buried a 3-pointer to pull USF within three. Green stole the inbound pass and called timeout, but the Dons didn’t have any left. USF was assessed a technical and Carter made 1 of 2 free throws to make it 69-65. Demetri Goodson’s steal sealed the victory.
“That’s a heck of a win,” Few said. “It’s not about RPIs. Right now San Francisco is a really good team and they’ve been good in February and January. It took them a while to get the pieces in line.”
The Bulldogs trailed 10-9 before their defense took over. It took USF five minutes to score its first 10 points. It took more than 11 minutes for USF to get its next 10. Gonzaga didn’t light it up offensively, but it still managed to open up a 12-point lead.
Backup point guard David Stockton was instrumental in Gonzaga’s run. He scored on a layup, then later swiped two straight USF passes – one he pitched ahead to Carter for a layup and the other Stockton finished with a layup.
“He’s spunky, that’s the best word to describe him,” center Robert Sacre said of Stockton. “He gives us a spark. He makes plays offensively and defensively.”
Stockton’s basket gave Gonzaga a 23-12 lead. The Dons managed only two field goals in the final 11:40, but stayed somewhat close by getting to the free-throw line. GU was called for 11 fouls and the Dons capitalized with eight free throws.
USF had trimmed the margin to eight when Carter connected from 14 feet in a shot that hit the flange and backboard simultaneously and gently dropped in, restoring Gonzaga’s lead to 35-25 at halftime.