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Analysis: Gonzaga puts hurt on Saint Mary’s to clinch another WCC title

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 18, 2021

Gonzaga doesn’t cut down the net ceremoniously after claiming West Coast Conference regular-season titles.

Good thing, because it was probably threadbare Thursday night after another surgical offensive performance.

The Bulldogs were dominant at both ends of the court, throttling Saint Mary’s 87-65 at the McCarthey Athletic Center to clinch their ninth straight conference championship, the longest active streak in the nation. The next longest is Vermont’s four consecutive America East titles.

Top-ranked Gonzaga (21-0, 12-0 WCC) left no doubt against the Gaels, who limited GU to a season-low 73 points in Moraga, California, last month. The Zags put up 51 points in the first half and reached 73 with 10:21 remaining. They led by 27 at the break and by 38 with 12:30 left.

The Gaels (11-7, 2-5) scored just 31 points in the first 27-plus minutes before heating up long after the issue had been decided.

“We’ve put together three great defensive efforts in a row,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We even followed it up at the start of second half. We didn’t let up, got out in the passing lanes, pressured them and executed our game plan, especially that top seven (in the rotation).”

Even when it appeared to go right for the Gaels, it went wrong. After a Saint Mary’s turnover, Corey Kispert raced toward the rim but had the ball stripped by Logan Johnson as he left his feet. Kispert coolly gathered the ball in midair, hit a 5-foot bank shot and Johnson was whistled for a foul.

The Gaels couldn’t contain dribble penetration early. When they got a better handle on that, Gonzaga countered with a flurry of 3-pointers. Joel Ayayi was 4 of 5 from deep and finished with 16 points.

“We played on our toes in the first half,” said Kispert, who scored a game-high 20 points. “We kind of flattened them out. Joel did a good job of making them pay when they went under (screens). A little bit of a mix of everything.”

Gonzaga’s balance was on full display as all seven who played in the first half scored at least four points.

“It’s kind of who we are this year,” Few said. “This isn’t the most physically imposing squad we’ve marched out, like 2017. It’s not the oldest or most experienced like 2017 or the most crazy, athletically gifted like Brandon Clarke and Rui (Hachimura), and Zach Norvell and ‘Perk’ (Josh Perkins) and that whole crew.

“But this is a team. They move it and share it and they make the right play for the most part and the offensive numbers are reflecting that. It’s something to behold if you ask me, just the way we’re playing and their understanding of it.”

When Saint Mary’s turned it over – it had 12 in the first half, one above its game average – the Zags made the Gaels pay with transition points. The Gaels finished with a season-high 19 turnovers.

“If you can make plays on the defensive end it leads to offense,” Few said. “That’s a big bonus against them because you don’t want to walk it up and try to set up against their half-court defense. We delivered against their physicality better than we did at their place.”

Gonzaga never trailed and led by double figures for more than 30 minutes, much to the delight of a handful of players’ families permitted to attend a home game for the first time this season.

“You can’t really tell much of a difference (with noise), but knowing my parents were there, it’s been a while since they’ve seen me play and they usually come to almost every home game,” Kispert said. “It’s been kind of big hole in the season for me up to this point, but looking up and seeing them at different points was really nice.”

The Zags shot above 60% in both halves and hit 8 of 14 from distance (57.1%). They’ve posted three 50-point halves against the Gaels in the past two seasons.

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