LAS VEGAS – Sophomore guard Kevin Pangos knew the questions would come, particularly after Gonzaga’s rugged first half against ninth-seeded Loyola Marymount, about the Zags feeling additional pressure carrying the No. 1 ranking.
“No, not at all,” said Pangos, who had 11 of his 14 points in the second half as Gonzaga outscored LMU by 17 and claimed a 66-48 victory in the WCC men’s basketball tournament semifinals Saturday. “I don’t over-think things like that. I just play the game I love. That’s for other people to think about.”
The top-seeded Bulldogs looked out of sorts, trailing the Lions by five midway through the first half and 26-25 with 1 minute remaining, quieting a pro-Gonzaga crowd of 7,896 at the Orleans Arena.
Sam Dower’s basket just before the horn gave Gonzaga the lead for good and the Bulldogs took off in the second half. Gonzaga rattled off 14 unanswered points to take command 46-31. LMU, feisty throughout despite playing its fourth game in four nights, was never closer than 12 the rest of the way.
Gonzaga will face No. 2 Saint Mary’s, which edged San Diego 69-66 in overtime, Monday at 6 p.m. The Zags and Gaels will play for the title for the fifth straight season.
The Bulldogs (30-2), led by senior forward Elias Harris’ 21 points, achieved their first 30-win season. Coach Mark Few was asked which milestone was more significant – 30 wins or the top ranking?
“Probably tied,” he said. “To crack the code and get to the top of the polls, it was something that was a bigger deal than I thought it would be just because of the reactions by everybody, including colleagues in the profession. Thirty wins, we’ve been stuck on 29 a couple of times.
“They’re both special because it’s a culmination of an entire year of work, not just a week or two of being hot.”
Gonzaga made just 9 of 24 first-half shots, 1 of 7 3-pointers, and had more turnovers (7) than assists (5).
“We didn’t come out with the fire we’ve been playing with the whole year,” guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “We got it going in the second half. We need to carry that on.”
The Zags went to a zone defense early in the second half. LMU turnovers and missed shots followed and Gonzaga strung together consecutive baskets for the first time since the game’s opening minutes.
“There’s a lot of help built in, instead of man with the isolation stuff and (LMU point guard Anthony) Ireland getting to the basket or shooting 3s,” Bell said. “The zone helped a lot.”
Ireland finally cooled off, making 3 of his final eight shots to finish with 19 points.
“It’s no secret we haven’t shot the ball particularly well,” Lions coach Max Good said. “They had a little trouble guarding us man to man – they don’t usually – but obviously they were better in the zone and we were less effective.”
Pangos, who exchanged words with Ireland for a good chunk of the second half, drained a floater in the lane and Bell followed with a 3-pointer, turning up the crowd noise.
“It was nothing personal and we talked afterward,” Pangos said. “I was just trying to get a spark going from our team. We needed to have more fun.”
Harris swatted Ashley Hamilton’s shot and Pangos converted at the other end with a three-point play. Mike Hart made a steal and Kelly Olynyk, suffering through a rare subpar night offensively, scored on a putback to give Gonzaga a 15-point lead.
Olynyk rolled his ankle early in the second half but continued to play. He was just 3 of 10 from the floor and finished with eight points, equaling his season low. He contributed in other ways with eight boards and four assists.
LMU made 30.6 percent of its shots, 27 percent minus Ireland’s 5 of 12.
(1) Gonzaga 66, LMU 48
Percentages: FG .306, FT .684. 3-Point Goals: 5-20, .250 (Ireland 3-6, Walker 1-5, Stover 1-5, Hamilton 0-2, English 0-2). Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 1 (Stover). Turnovers: 16 (Ireland 4, Hamilton 4, Walker 3, Osborne 2, English, Stover, Okonji). Steals: 9 (Walker 3, Ireland 2, Stover, Flint, Osborne, Okonji).
Percentages: FG .435, FT .677. 3-Point Goals: 5-14, .357 (Pangos 2-4, Bell, Jr. 2-5, Harris 1-3, Dower 0-1, Barham 0-1). Team Rebounds: 1. Blocked Shots: 3 (Harris 2, Hart). Turnovers: 13 (Pangos 5, Harris 2, Bell, Jr. 2, Stockton, Karnowski, Edi, Olynyk). Steals: 8 (Hart 3, Stockton 2, Harris 2, Edi).
Halftime—Gonzaga 27-26. A—7,896.