Dave Boling: Spokane native Anton Watson reminds voters he is one of the best players in the WCC
March 6, 2023 Updated Tue., March 7, 2023 at 3:56 p.m.
LAS VEGAS – Anton Watson has built a career on doing all the little things well. Playing smart, playing hard, earning teammates’ respect and fans’ love.
He’s been the consummate workman, all effort, no ego. He’s called a “glue” guy, the sort who keeps the showier players together. But he’s been more than that.
So when the Gonzaga senior forward was not voted as one of the All West Coast Conference First- or Second-team selections by the conference coaches, it was viewed by Zag fans as an irresponsible oversight.
Disrespected. Dissed. Shadow cast all over him. Whatever you want to call it, he deserved better.
Monday night, Watson emphatically announced to any doubters that he was a game-changing star in his own right.
By putting together a pair of 3-pointers and a few layups on drives and cuts, Watson poured in 13 points in the game’s first 6:30 to give Gonzaga a lead over San Francisco that was threatened by never overtaken. He finished with a season-high 20 points
As a result, GU scored a 84-73 over the No. 6-seeded Dons, which sends the Zags to their 26th straight berth in the conference finals where they once again they square off against Saint Mary’s, a 74-69 winner over BYU in the early semifinals Monday evening. The Zags have won nine of last 10 titles.
An individual milestone wasn’t quite eclipsed by Drew Timme, who closed in further on the all-time GU scoring record. Timme needed 22 to top Frank Burgess’ mark of 2,196, set in 1961. He finished with 17.
Timme has been the whiskered face of the GU program for at least three years. The 6-10 senior from Texas performed Monday as he had so many times in his career, dominating the lane and the baseline with creativity and determination.
The two-time WCC Player of the Year, Timme had a worthy sidekick under the basket in Watson.
Monday’s semifinal was a challenge for the Zags, as USF guard Khalil Shabazz was again a cold-blooded scorer, finishing with 26. The Seattle native put in 38 Saturday night to lead the Don’s to a double-overtime win over No. 3-seeded Santa Clara.
Who could tell if USF would be energized by that win or enervated from the effort? Behind Shabazz’s 14 first-half points, the Dons were within eight at half.
The Zags had a scare early in the second half when Timme hit the floor hard on a baseline drive, but he shook it off and stayed in the game.
The Dons got within four with 14 minutes left, but Watson scored a putback on his own miss. The lead was trimmed to 56-54 with 12:00 remaining, but Watson came up with a pair of blocks on subsequent possessions.
While the GU guards were quiet most of the game, a pair of late 3s by Rasir Bolton helped stave off the Dons. Sophomore big man Ben Gregg also stretched the USF defense by hitting four of six 3 pointers.
In the other semifinal, Saint Mary’s roared to a big lead over BYU and fended off a late Cougars rush.
The title showdown looks familiar. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s shared the regular-season crown, winning games on their home court. They’ve squared off in 10 of the last 14 title games with GU holding a 7-3 edge.
Zags have won 30 of 33 games in the WCC Tournament since it moved to Las Vegas in 2009, all three of those losses were compliments of Saint Mary’s (2010, 2012, 2019). Last year, the Zags beat the Gaels 82-69 in in the title matchup.
They’re powered by the backcourt of Logan Johnson and Aiden Mahaney and wing Alex Ducas, and they play physical defense and precision offense.
When these two rivals meet, there’s no surprises and no effort unexpended. And a great deal of mutual respect. Anton Watson included.
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