LAS VEGAS – What happened in Las Vegas was essentially what happened in so many Gonzaga’s games this season.
The Zags found themselves in another tight, tense battle, this time against sixth-seeded San Francisco, and found a way to win again.
Senior forward Anton Watson had another big night and the second-seeded Zags were resourceful down the stretch to turn away the Dons 84-73 in a West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal Monday night at Orleans Arena.
“I think it’s pretty much what we’ve been doing all year,” Zags coach Mark Few said.
“It went down just like a lot of those other stories did,” junior wing Julian Strawther added, “but I’m glad we could pull it out, grab another ‘W’ and live to fight another day.”
It’ll be yet another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s showdown to settle the championship – as it’s been in 11 of the 15 tourneys played at Orleans Arena – with GU holding a 7-3 edge in title games.
But both squads, who split the two regular-season games, were tested in the their semifinal games. Saint Mary’s led BYU by 26 in the second half before hanging on 76-69.
The ninth-ranked Zags (27-5), who advanced to the championship game for the 26th straight year, couldn’t shake the Dons until the closing minutes. USF (20-14) bombed away from the perimeter and hit 13 3s – equaling Texas and BYU for the most against Gonzaga this season.
Watson racked up 20 points, seven boards, three assists and two blocks. Drew Timme drew heavy defensive attention, but added 17 points – he’s five points from becoming Gonzaga’s all-time leading scorer – to go with eight rebounds and five assists. Ben Gregg chipped in four 3-pointers and 12 points off the bench.
“Anton was spectacular again. He was just big time,” Few said. “They chose not to guard him, I’m not sure why teams are doing that right now because he’s playing at an extremely high level. He delivered in so many ways, like he always does.”
Strawther added 15 points, including six straight inside the 6-minute mark as Gonzaga started to pull away.
Still, it took contributions from several players to get the job done. It was a rough night offensively most of the night for Gonzaga’s guards, but Malachi Smith made his first basket on a putback and Rasir Bolton’s broke into the scoring column with a 3-pointer as the Zags opened up a 61-54 lead with 9:30 remaining – and got the pro-Gonzaga crowd involved in the process.
USF guards Khalil Shabazz and Tyrell Roberts answered, as they did throughout, but the Zags finally created some breathing room with a 6-0 spurt to open up a 76-64 lead with 4:03 remaining.
“That’s what’s going to be needed in this stretch in our tourney run,” Nolan Hickman, who chipped in eight points and four assists, said of the widespread contributions in the closing 10 minutes. “We’re definitely going to put all hands into it and whatever is needed all these guys have the capability of doing it.”
Shabazz, who finished with 26 points and six 3-pointers, walked toward the locker room in tears after a gutsy effort and USF coach Chris Gerlufsen was seen wiping away tears a few seconds later. Roberts added four 3s and 17 points.
“Obviously it didn’t feel like it during the game, but he got 26 and it was on 24 shots,” Few said. “It’s really hard for our guys, you feel like you’re out there on an island. They have total freedom to shoot anywhere, anytime in any manner. They’re so good at those stare-down 3s. That’s one thing we really wanted to take away and I don’t think we did great on that, but we chased them around and made them work hard and in that last four minutes they ended up coming up short on a lot of them.”
Gonzaga, following a nine-day span with just one game, showed no rust early. The Zags raced in front 12-2 on 3-pointers by Strawther and Watson.
Watson scored 13 points in the first 6 minutes, 33 seconds as GU’s lead grew to 15 with 12:44 left.
The Dons started to find the range from deep, led by Shabazz’s four 3-pointers, and trimmed the deficit to 40-35. Gregg answered with his third 3 to boost GU’s lead to 43-35 at half.
“Like I told the team, we beat a really confident team that was playing at a high level,” Few said. “We took their best punch and we were able to answer with a couple of our own.”