SANTA CLARA, Calif.– There was nothing easy about it, but it probably shouldn’t have been this hard.
Gonzaga dominated inside, shot a high percentage, had a big rebounding edge and got to the free-throw line. What the Bulldogs couldn’t do was put away Santa Clara, which kept it close deep into the second half before the Zags claimed a 73-62 West Coast Conference men’s basketball victory Thursday before an announced crowd of 4,700 at the Leavey Center.
The 24th-ranked Bulldogs (21-4, 11-2 WCC) won their fourth straight and stayed even with Saint Mary’s (23-4, 12-2) in the loss column. Santa Clara (8-18, 0-13) dropped its 14th in a row and is in danger of becoming the first winless team in conference since Saint Mary’s in 2001.
Senior center Robert Sacre hit 6 of 9 field-goal attempts and 8 of 11 free throws to finish with 20 points, his most since scoring 22 against Eastern Washington in the season opener. Sophomore forward Sam Dower made 7 of 8 shots and all four of his free throws en route to 18 points. Dower also had a team-high seven rebounds as Gonzaga won the boards 34-22.
“We wanted to be physical,” Sacre said. “We found their weakness and kept going at it and going at it.”
The Bulldogs piled up a 40-10 edge in paint points, but every time they appeared poised to blow it open Santa Clara would knock down a 3-pointer.
“We were incredibly efficient on the offensive end, but we let the home team get going from 3 which is a dangerous mix,” GU coach Mark Few said. “We kept helping off people we shouldn’t have helped off of, and we’ve been pretty good about not doing that all year.”
A couple of the Bulldogs’ 3-pointers in the second half finally allowed the Zags to create a cushion. Gary Bell Jr. nailed a 3 – the shot clock hit zero with the ball in midflight – to cap a 14-4 run midway through the second half.
That gave Gonzaga a 59-47 lead, but Evan Roquemore’s 3-pointer soon trimmed the margin to seven. After Dower’s short bank shot, Mike Hart, who entered the game late in the second half, hauled in an offensive rebound and fed Kevin Pangos for a wide-open 3, giving Gonzaga a 64-52 advantage.
Hart finished with three points, six rebounds, one block and one assist in 8 minutes. He also helped slow down Roquemore, who made four 3s and finished with 21 points.
“Mike was unbelievable,” Few said.
Gonzaga committed a couple of turnovers in the closing minutes and saw its lead dwindle to eight before sealing the win at the free-throw line.
The Bulldogs made 14 of 18 from the field in the second half and 61 percent overall.
“Our guys gave up position in the paint too easily,” Broncos coach Kerry Keating said. “We can’t give up paint catches.”
With Saint Mary’s losing to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday, the Bulldogs can earn at least a share of the WCC title if they win their three remaining conference games. Gonzaga visits San Francisco on Saturday. BYU beat the Dons 85-84 on Thursday.
“LMU beat Saint Mary’s at Saint Mary’s, which is tough to do,” Dower said. “A door has opened for us, but we’re just focusing on San Francisco.
Gonzaga led 32-27 at half, thanks to Dower’s 12 points. Other than Sacre’s 10 points, it was a quiet opening 20 minutes for the starting five. Dower and backup guard Marquise Carter (three points, three assists and four rebounds) helped pick up the slack.