Gonzaga defeated Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament final on Tuesday night to guarantee its 18th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance
Turns out, the cliche is true: it is hard to beat a team three times in one season. Just ask the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who on Tuesday finally topped conference rival Saint Mary’s for the first time this season after losing twice during conference play. The Zags got terrific production from Eric McClellan (20 points in 27 minutes), had four players score in double figures and shot 62% from the field as they beat the Gaels 85–75 in the WCC tournament championship. Three quick thoughts from the game:
Cinderella lives on
After the win that gave Gonzaga its 18th consecutive NCAA tournament berth, Bulldogs coach Mark Few went on SportsCenter and let out a sigh of relief. “We’ve never, ever had to work as hard as we did this year,” Few said of the Zags, who found themselves in “on the bubble” discussions for what felt like the first time in forever. A 1–5 record against the RPI top 50 and “quality wins” over teams like UConn and Washington don’t make for the best resume.
Tourney fans fell hard for the little Jesuit school in eastern Washington when GU went all the way to the Elite 8 in 1999, and the public’s been enamored with Gonzaga ever since. March Madness would feel weird without the Zags, just like it would without Kansas (26 trips in a row to the Big Dance) and Duke (20), the only two schools who have more current consecutive appearances than Gonzaga (Michigan State is tied at 18, but will head to its 19th next week).
Few, who has led GU to the NCAA tournament in each of his 17 years as head coach, talked about the “doom and gloom” hanging over Gonzaga in mid-December, when it was dealt a devastating injury blow to center Przemek Karnowski, and admitted the pressure shook up the locker room. But after beating the Gaels on Tuesday, Few said, “All is well in Zagville.”
Domas Sabonis is a man, and everyone else is a child
The son of one of the greatest NBA players of all time came to Gonzaga with lots of hype, and he’s lived up to all of it. On Tuesday night against Saint Mary’s, he scored 15 points and grabbed eight boards, which followed a perfect shooting night in the semifinals Monday against BYU when he scored 18 points, snatched 14 rebounds and handed out three assists. The Zags came into 2015–16 season boasting maybe the country’s best frontcourt in Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer and Karnowski, but their depth took a hit in early December when they lost Karnowski for the year.
It’s been a frustrating season for the Zags, but Sabonis has been a bright spot. He plays with uncommon maturity for a 20-year-old, can score with either hand inside, has tremendous body control for someone 6'11" and 240 pounds and is one of the best rebounders in the country. NCAA tournament games are typically won with stellar guard play, but Sabonis will pose problems for pretty much everyone.
Saint Mary’s is … NIT-bound?
The Gaels were the best team in the WCC all season, earning the No. 1 seed with a sweep of Gonzaga, the program’s first since 1995. Coming into Saturday night, they led the country in team field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, and ranked No. 5 in scoring defense, allowing just 60 points per game. They played Cal tough in Berkeley—the Bears went undefeated at home this season—before falling 63–59 in mid-December. But there’s a decent chance they’re not going to the Big Dance. Two losses to Pepperdine and a down year in the WCC means that despite 27 wins, Saint Mary’s will be sweating on Selection Sunday. Don’t be surprised if the WCC is only a one-bid league.