SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Sam Dower Jr. wasn’t the first option. The senior forward didn’t seem to be the second option as Kyle Dranginis was dribbling well beyond the 3-point arc and precious seconds were burning off the clock.
But Dower flashed near the top of key, took a pass and hit the biggest shot of his Gonzaga career, a 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left that carried the Bulldogs past upset-minded Santa Clara 54-52 before 4,721 Wednesday at the Leavey Center.
Dower’s basket rescued the Bulldogs (19-3, 9-1 WCC) from a late-game pratfall as Santa Clara dug out of a 49-39 hole to take a 52-51 lead on Brandon Clark’s floater over 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski with 28.6 seconds left.
The Bulldogs called timeout to set up a play for Kevin Pangos, but the Broncos (10-13, 3-7) covered the junior guard. Dranginis ended up with the ball out front and zipped a pass to Dower, who made his only 3-point attempt of the game.
“We drew up a nice play to get one of our shooters open but they guarded it,” said Dower, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds. “I tried to find an opening and luckily Kyle found me.”
Dower said his last game-winner came on a hook shot during his senior year at Osseo (Minn.) High.
“I was thinking, ‘I gotta make it,’ ” Dower said. “That’s all I remember.”
There was a long list of things Gonzaga didn’t do well, but the Bulldogs did hit free throws (17 of 19) and they did a solid job defensively on SCU’s top two scorers. Gary Bell Jr. connected on three key 3-pointers in the second half and Dranginis added another big 3.
Clark, quiet until fueling Santa Clara’s late run with three baskets, finished with 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting. Jared Brownridge had just six points as the Broncos struggled against GU’s zone defense. The two SCU guards combine to average just over 40 points in WCC games.
“They couldn’t get the shots they wanted so we stuck with the zone,” Dranginis said.
Bell finished with 15 points and Karnowski added 11 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. GU warmed up in the second half to finish at 35 percent.
Gonzaga trailed 31-24 early in the second half but took the lead with an 11-0 run, the last three supplied by Bell’s first trey. Two more Bell 3s helped GU extend its lead to 49-39 before the Broncos nearly pulled off a stunning upset.
“If you told me we’d hold them to 54 (points) and 34 (percent) from the field and outrebound them … I’d feel pretty good,” SCU coach Kerry Keating said.
The Zags were out of sorts from the start, turning the ball over on their first possession.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot on offense,” coach Mark Few said. “We missed 5-6 layups again. We’d get a little stretch with success in the post or coming off ball screens and we’d try to thread the needle on a pass – just those things that have haunted us on offense. But we played great defense, we really did.”
Gonzaga led 18-14, but went scoreless in a 5-minute, 40-second stretch of forgettable basketball. In one sequence, Gerard Coleman lost control of the ball driving to the basket, Dower missed a layup, Karnowski missed a 3-foot jump shot and Gonzaga was whistled for traveling.
SCU’s response? Two missed 3-pointers, a turnover on a lob pass to the rim that sailed out of bounds and a travel.