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Dave Boling: Gonzaga declares itself tournament ready with WCC championship win against Saint Mary’s

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

LAS VEGAS – Most college basketball games are determined by matchups, hot hands and insightful game plans. Some of the special ones force players to plumb deeper qualities and reveal their truest identity. To show who they are, and what they can become.

The Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s rematch in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game Tuesday night was that kind of game. These long-standing rivals split the regular season matches, the Gaels most recently owning the top-seeded Zags on Feb. 26 in Moraga, California.

But GU’s 82-69 win Tuesday night at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas declared that the Zags are not only WCC tourney champs, but are now officially tournament ready.

This being their 22nd consecutive ticket to the NCAAs, they knew what they needed to accomplish Tuesday night. For most of the past week or so, Zags players had listed their priority as getting back to the team they had been.

They didn’t exactly do that Tuesday. More important, they discovered a team they hadn’t always been, but one they can become. They achieved the same goal by becoming more versatile, by rotating their reliance on different players at key points – Julian Strawther early, Rasir Bolton and Andrew Nembhard at other times, especially when the game got dicey in the second half.

You’ll notice nothing mentioned yet about stars Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, the inside players who have provided the most consistent identity for the Zags during the season.

They played important roles, too, but one of the many keys to this game was the lone regular big man who wasn’t a second-team All-American, Anton Watson.

This became an Anton Watson kind of game. The 6-foot-8 junior forward did what he usually does, he just had to do it for longer than usual. In his 24 minutes, as he rested Timme and Holmgren, Watson contributed the highest plus-minus on the team, leading the Zags to a plus-17 advantage when he was on the floor.

Customarily, Watson’s production isn’t captured in the stats, but he finished this game with a nice stats line: 10 points (5 of 6 field goals) and five rebounds. He took a crucial charge, too, and deflected his share of balls under the basket.

He’s not on any kind of awards watch lists. But he plays in a range that extends from above the rim down to the very surface of the court, and that includes his frequent positioning inside the jersey of the man he’s defending. He makes all those unseen hustle plays, the tipped balls, the timely boards.

This game was perfect for him. Those who expected smoothly meshed offenses and flawless execution didn’t realize that it often doesn’t happen between these teams. Saint Mary’s makes teams look ragged, defending hard and burning the clock to slow down the Zags’ transition.

The outcome of this one was surely in the realm of doubt since the loss in Moraga. And was still in question when the Gaels pulled to within two points (56-54) with 7:28 remaining in the game.

Nembhard (19 points, seven assists) and Bolton (18 points) took over, though, and the Zags pumped in 26 points the rest of the game.

As Gaels coach Randy Bennett pointed out, nobody has worked harder at trying to devise ways to stop the Zags than he has over the years.

“We did a good job on Timme and Chet,” Bennett said. “And that’s hard to do. We did a good enough job on those two to win the game.”

But as the Zags showed, and Bennett and the Gaels realized, the GU constellation is brighter than just the brightest stars. And the versatility they showed again bodes well for their annual return to the big tournament.

Now they go in confident they can beat a talented and well-schooled team that was geared to stop their offense. They can win a game played in a lower gear than they generally like to cruise. And they can take a tag-team offensive approach if they have to, with many willing to step up and take over when the game situation demands.

Fittingly, the back-breaker came on a forceful breakaway dunk by Watson in the final minute.

It served as a perfect exclamation point for the declarative performance that powered the Zags into another tournament run.