LAS VEGAS – Most of Gonzaga’s trademarks were on full display.
The overpowering post play, five players in double figures and the inevitable scoring bursts from the nation’s No. 1 offense.
On Tuesday night, the Bulldogs needed more and found it with a defensive adjustment that made Saint Mary’s scoring maestro Jordan Ford look human for a half and fueled No. 2 Gonzaga’s 84-66 victory in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game viewed by 7,210 at the Orleans Arena.
Gonzaga (31-2) appears to have pole position for the West Region’s No. 1 seed and a short trip to the Spokane Arena for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Zags will find out for sure on Selection Sunday.
Ford, with 20 points, and to a lesser degree Malik Fitts, with four 3-pointers and 14 points, torched the Zags in the first half. Gonzaga kept pace, thanks to a Drew Timme’s nine points in the final 3 minutes in the half.
The Zags turned an offensive shootout into another runaway victory – their sixth by double digits in nine championship meetings with the Gaels at Orleans Arena – by sending two defenders at Ford on the perimeter. They used it with some success late in the first half and then in full force in the closing half. Ford’s points dried up, and the Zags kept Fitts under control as well.
“It changed the game,” said tournament MVP Joel Ayayi, who had 17 points, seven rebounds and two steals to go with his late-game heroics in Monday’s win over San Francisco. “It took the ball out of their best player’s (hands) and made their role players make plays. They made some plays, but at the end it paid off.”
Assistant coach Tommy Lloyd has been compiling scouting reports on Saint Mary’s seemingly forever. He couldn’t remember the last time Gonzaga double-teamed any guard, at least for lengthy stretches.
“It’s been a while, I’d have to think about that,” Lloyd said while the Zags collected the championship hardware nearby on a portable stage. “It’s something we’ve been working on, and that’s a credit to the kid. He’s such a good player. We had to find a way to direct the ball to other guys and luckily it worked out.”
The Gaels (26-8) went from a 41-point first half to just seven field goals and 25 points in the final 20 minutes. Ford missed all four of his shot attempts. He managed seven free throws, most long after the issue had been decided. Fitts hit his fourth 3-pointer with 9:07 left in the first half. He didn’t score again until he made a free throw with 9:07 left in the game.
The Zags led 64-55 at that point and rattled off 14 of the next 16 points.
“We’ve always done a good job on (Fitts), but honestly I was a little worried going in because he’s never really played good against us,” Lloyd said. “He was due. In these tourneys, you have to be able to take punches. You’re not going to blow people out in the first half.”
Ford finished with 27 points, one night after hitting the winner against BYU and scoring 42 points in Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Pepperdine. Gonzaga put Admon Gilder on Ford for a big chunk of the second half and applied double teams when Ford tried to operate off ball screens.
“They’re both really good players,” Lloyd said of Fitts and Ford. “Ford had an incredible run over the last five to six games. Luckily, it dried up a bit.”
Meanwhile, the Zags kept on scoring. They held a 48-22 edge in paint points. Ayayi scored 13 second-half points. Gilder had 11 of his 15 points in the second half, and Corey Kispert chipped in eight of his 12.
“That’s Gonzaga right there,” Ayayi said of the balance. “That’s the whole program. The whole year it’s been like that. Everybody has been able to score.”
The first half was perhaps the most entertaining of the season, packed with high-level post play by the Zags, deadly long-range accuracy by the Gaels and technical fouls on GU coach Mark Few (for arguing an offensive foul on Petrusev) and SMC post Jock Perry (for taunting after swatting Ryan Woolridge’s shot).
GU led 42-41 at the break after Timme and Petrusev maneuvered inside for 23 points on 10-of-11 shooting and applied foul pressure on a trio of front-court Gaels. Saint Mary’s countered behind Fitts’ early 3-point barrage and an unstoppable stretch from Ford, who authored a run of 13 straight points. Tommy Kuhse’s 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired with 3:25 left accounted for the SMC points not scored by Ford or Fitts.
“It was a great display of offensive talent with both teams going at each other,” Ayayi said. “Two really different approaches, but both really good and efficient. The second half we just had to say, ‘Stop,’ and then for us just keep going offensively.”
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