Steven Gray looked like the most relieved human being on the planet.
Trailing Saint Mary’s by three games in the WCC standings last season, Gonzaga rallied to share the conference title with the Gaels. Gray was part of his fourth WCC championship, the Bulldogs’ 11th in a row, and he could finally exhale inside the locker room at San Diego’s Jenny Craig Pavilion following the regular-season finale.
“It just feels great,” Gray said. “Especially from my standpoint, being the lone senior and seeing what could have happened and seeing the streak end. It’s a big relief, a big weight has been lifted.”
And it’s essentially been transferred onto the shoulders of those still in the program. The streak, one of several that fortify Gonzaga’s stature on the national scene, is in jeopardy again with the Bulldogs (18-4, 8-2 WCC) trailing 16th-ranked Saint Mary’s (22-2, 11-0) as the regular season winds down. The teams clash tonight at 8 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Gonzaga’s 11-year run ranks second in consecutive conference titles to UCLA’s 13-year rule of the Pac-8/10 from 1967-79. The Bulldogs last season passed Connecticut (1951-60, Yankee Conference) and UNLV (1983-92, Big West), who are tied for third with 10 in a row.
UCLA’s domination began under legendary coach John Wooden and center Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and then Bill Walton, and continued under Wooden’s successor, Gene Bartow, and forward Marques Johnson. It reached 13 with coach Gary Cunningham before ending in Larry Brown’s first season. That team finished fourth in the Pac-10 before falling to Louisville in the NCAA championship.
The streak has special meaning for Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who called Wooden his “biggest hero in coaching” when the Bulldogs clinched No. 11 a year ago.
“We always say, ‘Not on your watch, can’t happen on your watch,’ ” said Few, who has directed Gonzaga to 13 straight NCAA tournaments and been part of GU’s 14 consecutive WCC tournament championship appearances.
“It falls on deaf ears but every year I try to say how tough it is to do what we’ve been doing, whether it’s winning the league championship or making it to the NCAAs.
“A lot of teams have faltered with a lot better traditions than we have.”
Gonzaga obviously wants to extend the streak, but even if it wins tonight it would need help, much as it did last season, to catch the Gaels.
Gonzaga will have five games remaining, including third-place residents Loyola Marymount and BYU at home and a trip to San Francisco, which has knocked off the visiting Bulldogs the last two years. The biggest remaining challenges for Saint Mary’s appear to be a home date with LMU and a road game versus San Francisco.
“There’s pride, but I don’t think we think about it (the streak),” said center Robert Sacre, one of two GU seniors, along with Marquise Carter. “We just focus on playing basketball and letting everything work itself out. Let’s just play the games. You win enough games, enough said.”
The WCC title is one of several goals on Gonzaga’s checklist, junior forward Elias Harris said. “You try to keep it going because it’s special. At end of the day, it’s not about really winning the conference. I mean that’s a goal, but it comes down to the (WCC) tournament in Vegas and making the NCAA tournament.
“That’s what every school in the nation is playing for, going to the big tournament.”
The Bulldogs should have plenty of motivation for tonight’s rematch. Their WCC reign is in danger and they were blasted by the Gaels 83-62 last month.
“They don’t have anything to lose, we have a lot to lose,” Bulldogs sophomore forward Sam Dower said. “We have a lot on the line.”