The first half for Gonzaga men’s basketball wasn’t easy, but many of its fans may have forgotten that after the second.
GU weathered a first-half challenge from Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game, but shelled the Gaels in the second en route to an 84-66 victory at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Prior to Tuesday night’s matchup, the No. 2 and top-seeded Bulldogs (31-2) required a late surge to hold off the fifth-seeded San Francisco Dons and the third-seeded Gaels (26-8) were coming off a close victory over No. 14 BYU that booked their ticket to the title game. The Zags were upset in last year’s title game by SMC, but defeated them by double digits in each of their first two meetings this year.
“I was one of those four guys that lost last year,” Filip Petrusev said, referring to the only players who were on both this and last years’ teams. “I know four of us were definitely fired up.”
Despite a 5-0 start from GU, both teams’ high-powered offenses largely kept pace in the first half, thanks largely to SMC’s all-conference duo of seniors Malik Fitts and Jordan Ford. The two combined for all of the Gael’s first 34 points and the Zags struggled to generate enough stops to build a significant lead, lagging by as much as six. Ford in particular gave the Zags’ defense fits with 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
However, three straight critical buckets by Drew Timme to close the half put the Zags up 42-41 before they headed to the locker room. They would never trail again after that point.
GU continued to build on its momentum as the second half began with a seven-point run to push the lead to eight, all while holding Ford and Fitts to 10 points total for the second half.
“It just shows how basketball-intelligent this group is … we just needed to take the ball out of Jordan Ford’s hands,” Few said. “He’s an unbelievable player when he gets going like that.”
The Zags also imposed their will in the paint with stronger efforts from Timme, Petrusev and Tillie.
“It was obvious how dominant we were inside,” Petrusev said. “Especially Drew and then myself, just trying to get the position down low and find open looks and just react to the defense.”
Soon after, another GU run spurred by five consecutive points from Joel Ayayi pushed the lead up to 12 and sent the largely pro-Bulldog crowd in the Orleans Arena into a frenzy.
From that point on, the Zags consistently extended their double-digit advantage, even with Killian Tillie and Admon Gilder, Jr. sitting with foul trouble for much of the last eight minutes. A 3-pointer from Gilder with less than five minutes brought the lead past 20 and put the colloquial nail in the coffin for the Gaels.
GU will now receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and likely a No. 1 seed.
“We beat a really, really good team, a team that’s going to get to the NCAA tournament and make a lot of noise,” head coach Mark Few said. “And I'm just really, really proud of this group for what they've taken on all year ... they’ve ended up as regular season champs and conference champs when this is as good as the league has been since I’ve been here.”