MORAGA, Calif. – For 20 minutes, Gonzaga wasn’t sharp offensively or defensively.
The result? The top-ranked Zags held a two-point halftime edge against Saint Mary’s, an opponent they led by 33 points at the half and routed by 48 three weeks ago in Spokane.
The second-place Gaels have definitely improved since that embarrassing loss. Gonzaga saved up all of its improvement for the second half in the rematch, adjusting on both ends of the court to pull away for a 69-55 victory Saturday night, viewed by an overflow crowd at 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion.
It wasn’t perfect, but the second half was in the neighborhood as Gonzaga (29-2) wrapped up an unbeaten West Coast Conference season for the fifth time. The Zags also set a new standard for margin of victory (27.0 points) in the WCC and every Division I conference dating back to 1998, and possibly much longer.
Gonzaga’s 20-game winning streak is the longest in the country, and the Zags have won 31 conference road games in a row.
The Zags essentially got back to being the Zags in the second half, especially at the defensive end. Gonzaga outscored Saint Mary’s 33-21 in the final 20 minutes, even with the Gaels finishing on an 11-5 run after the issue was decided.
“I thought we did our assignments a lot better than the first half,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “Every time we screwed up a detail in our defense, Saint Mary’s made us pay. The second half we were a little bit tighter and played with more energy. Obviously, the defense got us going and got us out running.”
How good was GU’s defense? Saint Mary’s, which is in the top 20 nationally in offensive efficiency, scored 12 points in the first 18 minutes of the second half.
“Really?” junior forward Brandon Clarke said. “That’s crazy.”
Clarke triggered the Zags at both ends of the floor. Gonzaga led 47-40 but hit another lull offensively. Gaels guard Jordan Ford, a non-factor in Spokane, was a force in the first half, and his tough, hanging layup cut Gonzaga’s lead to 47-42.
Clarke responded by swatting Ford’s next two shots at the rim. The Zags broke away with a 17-0 run.
“(Clarke) changes everybody’s shot every game,” said Ford, who finished with 19 points. “He doesn’t even have to try and go up and block a shot. Just seeing him there, knowing his athletic ability affects people’s shots.
“You’re always worrying about him when you’re going in there, and it kind of makes it uncomfortable. I got a few shots over him, but they’re definitely difficult shots.”
Saint Mary’s (20-11, 11-5 WCC) went 7 minutes and 35 seconds between field goals.
“Our defense was really, really lacking (in the first half),” said Clarke, who finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. “Coach Few pretty much told us we have to pick it up. Ford is a really good shooter, so I was trying to make him drive more and react to him at the rim.”
Gonzaga’s offense didn’t have its typical production, but the Zags still shot 53 percent, despite a rough 2-of-14 performance beyond the 3-point line.
Josh Perkins (19 points), Rui Hachimura (17) and Clarke carried the offense. Zach Norvell Jr. had an off night with just six points, but he hit a pair of field goals as the Zags started to pull away.
Clarke had a pair of dunks and Hachimura connected on two free throws, putting Gonzaga on top 64-44 with 5:50 left.
“We weren’t moving the ball at all in the first half, settling for tough shots,” Few said. “Saint Mary’s was doing some things to cause that, but we needed to have more conviction to get into second actions, and a little more body movement and ball movement.”
The first half had the feel of the first meeting, but only for the first 6 minutes. Gonzaga jumped in front 11-2 after a Perkins jumper. Meanwhile, the Gaels had six straight empty possessions, including a trio of turnovers.
Saint Mary’s settled in with a boost off the bench from 6-foot-10 freshman center Matthias Tass, who scored twice on the low block, one a three-point play, to get the crowd involved.
Tommy Kuhse’s layup gave Saint Mary’s its first lead, 18-17. The Gaels bumped the lead to 26-22 on Ford’s 3-pointer over Hachimura.
Gonzaga had trailed for just 25 minutes and 10 seconds in its previous 15 WCC games. The Gaels held the lead for nearly five minutes in the first half.
Freshman forward Filip Petrusev’s tough fadeaway jumper just before the buzzer gave Gonzaga a 36-34 lead at the half.
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