LAS VEGAS – The Gonzaga Bulldogs were down to seven healthy scholarship players. They were playing less than 24 hours after surviving a tense, physical contest with BYU. A loss in the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament might cost Gonzaga an 18th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Details, details. Champions do what champions do at crunch time. And make no mistake: The Gonzaga Bulldogs are champions of the highest order, as they proved yet again Tuesday night in an 85-75 triumph over Saint Mary’s in the finale of the WCC tournament.
“All is well in Zag World!” coach Mark Few shouted into a microphone when addressing the sellout crowd at The Orleans Arena after the game. “The streak is alive!”
Go ahead, Pac-12 fans. Make your cracks about Gonzaga’s Bud Light Division I league. No, the WCC has never had the depth of the Pac-12, particularly this year, when the Pac is unusually tough from top to almost the bottom (sorry, Washington State). Make no mistake, however: Year after year after year, the Bulldogs would compete for and sometimes win the Pac-12 championship.
No 6-foot-10 player in the Pac-12 shoots the ball like Kyle Wiltjer. No Pac-12 player of any size rebounds like Domantas Sabonis. No team in the Pac-12 plays with more pride and unity than Gonzaga.
“People wrote our team off a long time ago,” Gonzaga sixth man Silas Melson said after escaping a glut of confetti and photos ops with fans, friends and family on the court. “We were losing close games, like Arizona, UCLA, Texas A&M. People started doubting us.
“We just stayed mentally tough for the whole year. We just worked harder, battled harder, and everything is going to be all right. That’s what we did.”
The Bulldogs are 26-7 with five straight wins, but the Bulldogs were just 60th in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) going into Tuesday’s game. At No. 35, Saint Mary’s (27-5) is easily the top team the Bulldogs have defeated.
“For a while, it was hard for them to take coaching,” Few said. “I think they took it personally. I think they grew up enough to quit taking it personally. They listen a little bit better.”
Few hopes his players heard what he had to say about them after the grueling semifinal win over BYU.
“They are the most resilient team I have ever seen,” said Few, who has gone to the NCAA tournament all 17 years he’s been head coach at Gonzaga. “We have not had an off night. We have not had a bad game yet this year, and I know not many teams in America can say that.”
Gonzaga were ranked ninth in the preseason Top 25 poll, but they dropped out of the Top 25 weeks ago. No WCC team is currently ranked in the AP poll, though Saint Mary’s is 23rd in the USA Today Top 25. The Gaels won both regular-season games with Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs suffered a huge blow early in the season when starting center Przemek Karnowski was lost with a back injury that eventually required surgery. Reserve center Ryan Edwards has missed two games with a knee injury Saturday against Portland, so Wiltjer and Sabonis are the only healthy Bulldogs taller than 6-5.
Wiltjer, named Most Outstanding Player at the WCC tournament for the second year in a row, is the only healthy Zag starter left from last year’s 35-3 team that lost to eventual NCAA champion Duke in the Elite Eight. It won’t be easy to (Big) Dance the night away with limited depth, but the Zags have proven no one should take them lightly.
“We can’t promise anything,” Melson said, “but if we take one game at a time, I think we can go pretty far.”
Senior guard Eric McClellan led Gonzaga with 20 points, including 13 of GU’s 15 points during one stretch late. “No offense to Wiltjer,” Melson said, “but I thought Eric should have been Most Outstanding Player.” Melson said Sabonis also deserved consideration after piling up 15 points and a team-high eight rebounds . . . Sabonis joined Wiltjer on the all-tournament team along with Saint Mary’s guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon and BYU freshman guard Nick Emery. Naar scored 25 points in the final . . . Gonzaga shot season highs of 61.7 percent from the field (29 or 47) and 95.5 percent from the free-throw line (21 of 22). The Zags led 43-35 at the half after shooting 69.2 percent from the floor (18 of 26) . . . Few and Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said the Gaels definitely deserve an at-large invitation to the NCAA tourney. “I think it’ll work out,” Bennett said . . . Sabonis’ father, Hall of Fame center Arvydas Sabonis, attended the game. Arvydas starred for the Portland Trail Blazers, then raised Domantas in Spain . . . There were hundreds of empty seats, but official attendance was the sellout number of 7,418.