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Gonzaga perseveres, beats Saint Mary’s for WCC championship

Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) inches his way into the key as Saint Mary’s center Evan Fitzner (21) defends during the first half of a West Coast Conference tournament championship final college basketball game, Tues., March 8, 2016, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) inches his way into the key as Saint Mary’s center Evan Fitzner (21) defends during the first half of a West Coast Conference tournament championship final college basketball game, Tues., March 8, 2016, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins, targets of criticism earlier this season, performed synchronized snow angels and staged a confetti fight on the debris-covered Orleans Arena court.

Norm Few, budding HBO star and father of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, wiped tears from his eyes after speaking with his son, then passed it off as sweat.

“It ain’t sweat,” Mark confirmed. “He s a big crier, and I probably will be, too. This group, what we had to go through with all the adversity, the sky is falling stuff, to be able to power through, stay positive and get it done makes this one really special.”

Following up an epic WCC tournament semifinal win over BYU with a hard-fought victory over top-seeded Saint Mary’s 85-75 in Tuesday’s championship, the Zags tacked another year on to one of the longest streaks – and one of the most improbable – in NCAA tournament history.

Make it 18 years, and counting.

“Hey, all is well in Zagville again, huh,” Few told fans who stayed around for the celebration. “The streak is alive.”

It was threatened by crushing injuries, by Gonzaga’s inability to close out quality opponents, by spotty guard play at times and in the end by a mind-numbingly efficient Saint Mary’s team.

Second-seeded Gonzaga overcame all of those challenges and the gritty Gaels to win a game that most bracket gurus projected as the Zags’ only avenue into the NCAA tournament. The Zags (26-7) march forward in March, as they seemingly always do, with a streak currently tied for the fifth longest streak in tournament history, counting Michigan State in this year’s field.

The Gaels (27-5) appear to be in good shape for an at-large berth but might be in for restless nights awaiting Selection Sunday.

The Zags led by as many as 10 in each half but the Gaels had no intentions of going away. They pulled within 66-65 after Joe Rahon’s fourth 3-pointer, but Eric McClellan countered with four free throws and a five-point Zags’ lead.

McClellan buried a big 3 with 2:30 left to extend Gonzaga’s advantage to 75-67. Four more McClellan free throws gave GU a 79-71 lead and his breakaway dunk with 29 ticks remaining ignited Gonzaga’s celebration.

“I just said it’s a new half and I’m just going to play my game,” said McClellan, who scored 17 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. “And we did a hell of a job at the free-throw line (21 of 22).”

McClellan had plenty of company. Kyle Wiltjer added 17 points, Perkins had 16 points and five assists, Domantas Sabonis chipped in 15 points and eight rebounds, and Kyle Dranginis scored 13.

“That’s perfect, it makes it easy for everyone,” Sabonis said of the balance. “I think we feel confident, we’re clicking and it’s just great to be on the court with my brothers. We had a lot of pressure. I’m just happy we won and now we get to go dancing.”

Emmett Naar, whose slashing drives to the rim kept the Gaels close, had 25 points and six assists.

“We didn’t get enough stops,” Naar said. “It’s hard to build momentum when the other team keeps scoring.”

Gonzaga buried 18 of 26 field-goal attempts (69.2 percent) in the first half and didn’t have a turnover in the first 13 minutes. Saint Mary’s was nearly as efficient, making 50 percent from the field and burying five 3-pointers. But the Gaels had six turnovers, leading to Gonzaga’s 15-4 advantage in points off turnovers.

At one point, the Gaels had connected on 10 of 13 shots – and trailed by seven.

Sabonis, who made all six of his first-half shots en route to 12 points, made two field goals and Perkins added a put-back to give Gonzaga a 43-35 edge at half.

GU kept right on scoring in the second half, finishing at 62 percent overall and committing just six turnovers. The Gaels finally cooled off a bit, settling at 46.3 percent.

“I think this is a good moment to exhale,” said Wiltjer, named the tournament’s most outstanding player for the second straight year. “We are a really hard-working group and once we get back to Spokane that hunger will be back, but tonight we’re going to enjoy this.”

Wiltjer, Sabonis, Naar and Rahon were joined by BYU’s Nick Emery on the all-tournament team.

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