LAS VEGAS – Sometimes sound effects speak louder than words.
Gonzaga sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis was describing his expectations of Monday night’s WCC tournament semifinal showdown with third-seeded BYU at the Orleans Arena.
“Last year’s final (a GU win over BYU in the championship game) was crazy,” Sabonis said. “Monday night it’s going to be, uh … ooohhfff. I’m excited.”
Indeed. Round three of the heavyweight battle between Gonzaga and BYU has greater meaning than the previous two contests this season that went down to the buzzer. The Cougars won 69-68 in Spokane, the Zags hung on to win 71-68 in Provo, the latter clinching a share of Gonzaga’s fourth consecutive regular-season title.
Both teams probably have to win the tournament to reach the bigger dance. Second-seeded Gonzaga (24-7) has been to 17 straight NCAA tournaments and 18 straight WCC tourney finals. BYU (23-9) has played in eight of the last nine NCAAs, despite coming up empty in conference tournaments since winning the Mountain West in 2001.
“Last week (in Provo) we were playing for a conference championship, now we’re playing for an NCAA bid,” Zags senior guard Eric McClellan said. “It’s a different game but our mentality has to stay the same.”
The first two meetings were physical, lower-scoring affairs. Neither team came close to their season averages (Gonzaga 79.3, BYU 83.6). The Zags handled BYU by double digits in the last two WCC title games.
“They’re a tough, tough out,” GU coach Mark Few said. “Dave (Rose, BYU coach) gets his guys to play so hard. They play with a lot of freedom and confidence. We were pretty darn resilient in Provo. We did a good job of matching their intensity.”
It figures to be another bruisefest.
“I’m going to be more prepared,” said Sabonis, who appeared to be slightly swollen near his eyebrow after Saturday’s win over Portland. “In the last game, I lost some balls that got knocked out of my hands. I have to be smarter and tougher. We know it’s going to be even harder.”
Gonzaga could be shorthanded inside. Reserve center Ryan Edwards left Saturday’s game with a right knee injury and the way he was hobbling afterward wasn’t a good sign. Edwards averages just 9.2 minutes but performed well in both games against the Cougars.
If Edwards is sidelined, Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer could see even heavier workloads. Four-guard lineups are another option. The Zags would be down to seven scholarship players without Edwards and the 6-foot-11 Sabonis and 6-10 Wiltjer would be the only players taller than Kyle Dranginis and Bryan Alberts, both listed at 6-5.
“Hopefully (Edwards) feels better,” Sabonis said, “but if not more of us are going to have to step up and we’re going to have to be smart with fouls, especially me.”
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