Ten days ago, Saint Mary’s welcomed top-ranked Gonzaga to Moraga, California, and punched the Zags in the gut, tying up one of the nation’s most efficient offenses and winning by 10 points.
The Gaels hoped to do the same thing Tuesday night in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship, following a similar script.
It worked – for a while, but not for 40 minutes. The Bulldogs pulled away in the final 8 minutes and topped Saint Mary’s 82-69 at the Orleans Arena.
For the fourth consecutive Gonzaga game, ESPN’s Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham described the action for those at home.
What they saw …
• That means, of course, Farnham and Flemming witnessed the Zags’ third loss of the season, a week ago Saturday in Moraga. The Gaels stymied the GU offense, winning 67-57 and ending its undefeated conference season.
The most unusual statistic from that game? It wasn’t that Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren combined for just 12 points. It was the Zags, one of the most unselfish teams in the nation, had just four assists on their 22 baskets.
Saint Mary’s made Gonzaga a one-on-one team.
The Gaels (25-7) tried again. Five minutes in, they were successful.
“A very similar feel to what we saw in Moraga the other night,” Farnham noted. And it continued until Gonzaga (26-3) started to defend better and get out in transition.
With a little more than 8 minutes before halftime, Hunter Sallis got into the key on the break, found Andrew Nembhard on the wing. His touch pass to Julian Strawther resulted in an open 3-pointer that gave GU a 24-16 lead.
It was the Zags’ fourth assist of the game. They finished with 13.
• One of the underrated aspects of Gonzaga’s long run of success, especially in recent years, is its depth of offensive talent. It showed in this one, mainly in the form of Anton Watson.
The junior from Gonzaga Prep was a spark early despite just scoring six points. But with Holmgren and Timme struggling again, his inside points were crucial in building a lead that reached 12 at one point in the half. Add in five first-half rebounds and it’s no wonder he was singled out for praise.
“That’s the beauty of Anton,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson told Farnham headed into the locker room. “Anton was our best offensive big in that half.”
• Holmgren wasn’t much of a factor again against the Gaels. The freshman scored just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting. He did grab eight rebounds, blocked a shot and altered a few more.
But after having just one foul in the first half, he picked up three in the first 12 minutes of the second and had to sit. His fourth was a transition charge that could have gone either way, though Farnham and Flemming didn’t think so.
“Boy, does that alter the interior teeth of this defense,” Farnham explained as Holmgren headed to the bench and the replay rolled.
That replay showed Holmgren bringing the ball up and Dan Fotu stepping to his left into Holmgren’s path, feet moving and chest angled.
“Clear foul on Chet Holmgren,” Farnham said of Chris Rastatter’s whistle. “Fotu stepped right in, absorbed the contact with his chest, the elbow was extended out.”
There was about 8:20 left. And the Gaels got a tip-in on the other end, cutting Gonzaga’s lead to 54-52. “Chet Holmgren’s in the game, that doesn’t happen,” Farnham said.
• So what happened from there? The Zags took over. They went on a 12-3 run to extend the lead to 11. As Farnham saw it, the Zags played with energy, tempo and purpose. And their guards took over.
“It’s been the guards tonight who have done the majority of the damage,” he said, adding the bigs weren’t playing as well as usual and the backcourt stepped up.
“This is what makes Gonzaga so dynamic,” he added.
Nembhard scored 10 and Rasir Bolton added seven of the Zags’ next 19 points as they went from up two when Holmgren left to up 12 with 2:46 left.
What we saw …
• Watching Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga play in the WCC final is comforting in a way. It’s simple. They have played so often in this venue with the NCAA berth on the line.
ESPN showed a graphic after the first media timeout , highlighting the most common conference championship matchup in the past 25 years.
At the top sat Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. This matchup was their 12th in that stretch.
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