SAN DIEGO – If you’re going to play your best basketball, might as well bring it out for crunch time in a close game.
Gonzaga found itself in a dogfight with San Diego, trailing by one point with 3 minutes left, when it, well, found itself. Guy Landry Edi and Kevin Pangos buried 3-pointers. Rob Sacre and Elias Harris grabbed rebounds and hit free throws, and a late defensive adjustment bothered the Toreros.
The Bulldogs closed by scoring the last eight points and 16 of the final 21 to overtake the Toreros 65-57 in front of 3,962 Saturday at the Jenny Craig Pavilion.
“I think we just wanted to win more,” said Sacre, who scored all 11 of his points and snagged six of his eight rebounds in the second half. “It was a good test for us. We learned how to pull out a close game. All the close games we’ve had in the past, we’ve lost a lot of them.”
Gonzaga’s streak of 11 straight WCC championships came to an end. The Bulldogs (23-5, 13-3 WCC) needed help from San Francisco, but the Dons lost to Saint Mary’s 67-60. The Gaels (25-5, 14-2), who shared the title with GU last season, earned their first outright WCC championship since 1989. Gonzaga was locked in as the No. 2 seed in the WCC Tournament regardless of Saturday’s outcomes.
The Bulldogs led by six at half, but the Toreros quickly caught up. Ken Rancifer drove the baseline for a dunk that tied it at 34. The Zags led 43-40 when freshman guard Johnny Dee scored seven straight points to put USD in front by four.
Rancifer’s 3-pointer gave San Diego a 52-49 lead with 4:25 left before Gonzaga delivered its kick to the finish line. Sacre made a pair of free throws – GU’s success there and USD’s failure at the stripe played a key role in the outcome – and Edi drained a 3-pointer.
“My mind-set was to drive, so I tried to lift him up with a pump fake,” said Edi, who led Gonzaga with 13 points. “He didn’t move. He actually backed up. I took the shot with confidence and made it.”
John Sinis returned the lead to USD with a 3-pointer, but Pangos answered with a 3. After Rancifer’s jumper knotted it at 57, Sacre drove into the middle of the lane and connected on a 6-foot shot to put Gonzaga ahead to stay.
The Bulldogs went to a zone defense for the first time just before Rancifer’s jumper, and USD struggled to get quality shots.
“We were having problems guarding them,” head coach Mark Few said. “They put five shooters on the floor and they were setting screens. We were switching and they were posting up our guards. That was Tommy (Lloyd, GU assistant coach), he made a good call there (to go zone).”
San Diego missed its last five shots, including three 3-pointers.
“We really competed, scratched and clawed, and then they went zone and we acted like we’d never seen a zone,” said coach Bill Grier, whose young team has made strides at both ends of the court since absorbing a 77-60 loss in Spokane. “And that’s my fault. I should have taken a timeout and got us into something.”
Harris made 2 of 4 free throws, Sacre 2 of 2 and Pangos 2 of 2 in the final 72 seconds.
“This is what tournament games are going to be like for us, both the WCC and NCAA tournaments,” said Few, whose team closes the regular season against visiting Longwood on Monday. “You’re going to have to make adjustments and if you’re not playing good figure out how to play better, execute and make plays down the stretch.”
Harris finished with 12 boards, his seventh double-figures rebounding game in the last nine, as GU won the glass 40-27. Pangos made 3 of 4 3-pointers and added 11 points. Gary Bell Jr. scored all nine of his points in the first half.
Gonzaga made 20 of 27 at the free-throw line. USD was 2 of 10 in the first half. Dee made 5 of 5 in the second half, USD’s only free throw attempts.
“They were big because they were untimely misses,” Grier said. “They were run-killers.”