MORAGA, Calif. – It happened again.
The Zags let another second-half lead slip away. They suffered through another shaky stretch on offense – and this time on defense – in crunch time. They watched another winnable game go down in the loss column.
Five losses by 15 total points. The latest was the most excruciating yet as Saint Mary’s rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final 6:50 to edge Gonzaga 70-67, much to the delight of the majority of a standing-room-only crowd that swelled McKeon Pavilion beyond it 3,500-seat capacity.
“All of them (have been similar),” head coach Mark Few said. “It’s a shame. We have to fix it. We have to be able to make those plays, and we have in some of our other wins. But you can’t have three or four turnovers in maybe the last 10 possessions, that’s inexcusable.”
Saint Mary’s (16-2, 7-1 WCC) moved into first place alone in the conference and ended GU’s eight-game winning streak in the series. The Gaels are 14-0 at home.
It’s not easy trying to explain how the Zags (14-5, 6-2) could lead by 15 early in the second half, shoot 59 percent for the game and 62.5 percent in the closing 20 minutes and still come out on the losing end.
“I don’t know what to say,” forward Domantas Sabonis said. “I feel like we have every game in control and the last 5 minutes we let it go somehow.”
The Zags scored just six points in the last 6:50. Three straight turnovers ignited Saint Mary’s comeback. The Gaels used a 14-3 run to take the lead 65-64 with 2:45 remaining – their first lead since the score was 4-2.
Gonzaga tied it at 67 on Kyle Dranginis’s driving layup with 21.4 seconds left. Joe Rahon made 1 of 2 free throws with 6.6 seconds left to put Saint Mary’s up 68-67. However, he quickly fouled Eric McClellan in the backcourt, apparently believing Gonzaga wouldn’t be in the bonus but it was the Gaels’ seventh foul.
McClellan, who had an outstanding game, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 3.7 seconds left.
Guard “Emmett (Naar) and I had it screwed up,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “Somehow it worked out.”
Fitzner made a pair of free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining and Josh Perkins’ desperation attempt from 35 feet came after the final buzzer.
McClellan scored 16 of his 23 points in the first half when GU grabbed a 34-26 lead. Sabonis had 11 of his 17 in the second half and pulled down 13 rebounds for his 10th double-double. He added a career-high seven assists. Dranginis chipped in 13 points.
“We did such a good job of being in control of that thing, doing our jobs on the defensive end and being pretty darn efficient on the offensive end,” Few said. “Just empty possessions (late), you can’t do that on the road against a good team.”
Fitzner led Saint Mary’s with 20 points. Naar contributed 16 points. Rahon had 13 points as well as a couple of steals in the final minutes.
“It’s hard to beat them when they play well,” Bennett said.
The Zags surged in front early with a 10-0 run, eight points produced by McClellan. He made a pair of 3s and filled in at point guard when Perkins picked up his second foul
“I wouldn’t want anybody else there (at the free-throw line) at the end,” Few said of McClellan. “He’s been shooting the heck out of them lately and he played a whale of a game. And he puts his time in. Hopefully he’ll get another chance at the line in another game.”
Gonzaga’s biggest lead was 50-35 with 13:43 remaining. It was 61-51 after a Dranginis’ 3-pointer but the Gaels stormed back.
“When you have empty possessions on offense you have to get stops on defense,” Dranginis said. “It’s been the story of our losses. Same thing tonight.”
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