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Gonzaga opens up big lead early, beats San Francisco 81-71 to make 25th straight WCC title game

LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga had eight days to sit and stew on a 10-point loss to Saint Mary’s in the final game of the regular season. It took about five minutes Monday night at the West Coast Conference Tournament for the top-ranked Bulldogs to wipe that result from their hard drive.

Gonzaga opened an early double-digit lead on San Francisco by playing with the force and physicality that would’ve come in handy a week earlier in Moraga, California, and the frontcourt duo of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren bounced back from a rare off-night, combining to score 39 points in an 81-71 win for the top-seeded Bulldogs over the fourth-seeded Dons at Orleans Arena.

“I don’t know how many in a row this is making it to the championship game, but it’s quite an accomplishment by the guys to be able to, fully knowing you’re safely in the NCAA Tournament, but still come down and compete the way they did,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “So I was really proud of them today.”

To answer Few’s question, the Bulldogs (25-3) have now qualified for 25 consecutive conference championships games and will be playing for their 20th WCC Tournament title at 6 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN). Gonzaga will face second-seeded Saint Mary’s (24-6), who beat Santa Clara 75-72 in Monday’s late semifinal.

To get there, Gonzaga’s pairing of Timme and Holmgren delivered against a USF team that wasn’t at full-strength in the frontcourt, playing without All-WCC First Team forward Yauhen Massalski, who injured his knee in Saturday’s quarterfinal against BYU.

Timme bolted through the lane for an uncontested dunk on the game’s first possession, converted an open layup on the next one and completed an and-one shot on the third to give the junior forward seven points before the Dons could get on the scoreboard.

Holmgren made it a 9-0 lead moments later when he took Zane Meeks off the dribble from the 3-point line, spun around the USF forward and split two Dons before soaring to the basket for a two-handed dunk.

“It’s just what we do, that’s just Zag basketball and we got away from it a little bit and we just focused on that this week prior to this,” Timme said. “We just got back to doing what we do best and that’s the bottom line.”

Eight days after Timme and Holmgren combined to score 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting against the Gaels, the forward pairing had nearly 40 combined points on 17-of-29 from the field.

Holmgren offered defensive contributions that looked familiar to anyone who’s watched the Zags this season, blocking six shots – matching his second-highest total of the season – while hauling down eight rebounds and adding three steals. Timme also had four rebounds and four assists.

After the all-conference bigs were silenced at Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard described Monday’s outing as “normal” and “regular” for Timme and Holmgren. Sixth man Anton Watson also had eight points and 10 rebounds after playing 15 scoreless minutes against the Gaels.

“Those guys are high-level bigs, Drew, Ton (Watson) and Chet,” Nembhard said. “So try to get the ball to them in the right spots and just read the game and they deliver most of the time.”

Gonzaga’s fast start allowed the Bulldogs to establish a 15-point lead less than 10 minutes in, and they pushed it to a game-high 24 points with 8:45 remaining in the second half.

But a USF team that’s expected to secure its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1997-98 made a final charge at the Zags with 5:33 left, deploying a full-court press to cause three turnovers inside the final 4 minutes. Gonzaga also committed three fouls during that span, sending USF to the line six times and keeping Holmgren, Timme and Bolton on the bench for small stretches with four fouls each.

The Dons launched a 14-2 run to close the deficit to eight points with 1:32 left, but USF missed two 3-pointers inside the final minute, allowing Gonzaga to walk out with a double-digit victory.

“A few turnovers down the stretch and then we kind of got in a little trouble fouling too much and letting them get some good 3 looks and that’s how they got back in the game,” Nembhard said. “Got to be a little more crisp down the stretch for sure.”

Few said the Zags would address their late-game issues when the time is right, but the focus now turns to Tuesday’s championship game, where GU can not only win its third consecutive conference title but take a big step toward earning another No. 1 overall seed at the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve got a game in less than 24 hours, so you move on and we’ll spend time with it at the appropriate time and put the effort in and show them,” Few said. “We’ve obviously spent time on full-court pressure and things like that. It’s hard to emulate when you have (Khalil) Shabazz running around there. He’s extremely quick-handed and just such a great anticipator.

“So now’s not the time for that. We’ve got to move and get ready, quick turnaround.”

USF’s Shabazz struggled early, but the veteran guard finished with a game-high 25 points on 10-of-25 from the field. Julian Rishwain scored 20 points for the Dons.