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Gonzaga gains automatic bid to NCAA

LAS VEGAS – The Gonzaga Bulldogs have seemingly faced elimination games for the last month so when they followed up their improbable run to a WCC regular-season title with a pair of gritty victories and a conference tournament championship, they’d certainly earned the right to celebrate.

They didn’t hold back. Steven Gray, with a bandage covering a cut over his left eye that required four stitches, hopped up and down as the final seconds ticked away, waving his arms to exhort a pro-Gonzaga crowd. Robert Sacre was exhausted but sported a wide grin. Near the bench, head coach Mark Few playfully put David Stockton in a head lock.

Gonzaga’s latest victory was like many that preceded it over the last five weeks, delivered with defense and determination as the No. 2 Bulldogs knocked off top-seeded Saint Mary’s 75-63 in front of 7,186 Monday at the Orleans Arena to earn their 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m learning still, in my 40s, the resiliency of kids,” Few said. “These guys hung with it and hung with it when it felt like the whole world was collapsing with all the people around them. They hung with it, took it day by day. That’s something we could all probably learn from.

“Just the way we won this last string of games. None of them have been pretty, but we made defensive stops, we stepped up and hit big free throws.”

And, Few pointed out, contributions came from virtually everyone in the nine-player rotation. Tournament MVP Marquise Carter scored all 11 of his points in the first half, including the last four that gave Gonzaga 39-34 lead at the break.

Gray missed about 4 minutes to get stitched up, but he made six free throws in the second half and finished with a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds. Robert Sacre had 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Sam Dower, who left after being scratched in the eye with 8 minutes left, added 10 points.

Stockton contributed seven points and three assists. Mike Hart scored four points, more than his combined total in the last 16 games. Elias Harris chipped in nine points and five boards.

“I’m sitting my butt down, I’m tired,” said Sacre, taking a seat on the platform where the championship trophy was presented minutes before. “Oh my goodness, we’ve been through so many battles this year and everyone doubted us, but I’m so proud of our guys.

“And it’s not over, that’s the best part.”

After splitting two games with the Gaels (24-9) in the regular season that came down to the last seconds, this one looked destined for another white-knuckle finish. Then, tied at 53, Gonzaga rattled off eight straight points to take its biggest lead. Dower scored inside, just before leaving with his eye injury, to start the run. Stockton swished a 3-pointer and then came two turning points.

SMC’s Mitchell Young picked up his fifth foul on a Sacre putback. The GU center made 1 of 2 at the line. Rob Jones picked up his fifth foul 36 seconds later on Gray’s offensive rebound. Gray hit both free throws and Gonzaga led 61-53.

Without two of its primary interior players, Gonzaga (24-9) took over on the boards and the Gaels struggled to score.

“We don’t have that kind of depth inside, we need Jones and Young,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “That was a big call on Jones (a technical in the first half when Jones protested too loudly after he picked up a blocking foul). We survived that and we were doing all right, but then he got his fifth.”

The Gaels closed within 61-58, but Gonzaga went on a 6-0 run to restore a nine-point lead. Harris’s tip-in and four points from Sacre gave the Zags a cushion and they hit their free throws to pull away.

WCC regular season player of the year Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova combined for 45 points, but the Gaels’ shooting percentage plummeted in the second half (32 percent).

“We held them to 40 percent shooting,” Few said. “Their ‘roll’ guys hurt Santa Clara (in the semifinals), the guys rolling to the basket scored 20 points off that. We did a great job shoring that up. Those two guys are really good and they can make tough shots. If they can beat you making tough shots, so be it. Eventually they started missing some of them.”

Carter was joined on the All-Tournament team by Gray, Dellavedova, McConnell and San Francisco’s Mikey Williams.

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