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St. Mary's learns a difficult lesson from an all-too-familiar foe


MORAGA, Calif. -- St. Mary's College wins the West Coast Conference title about as often as it snows in this suburb of San Francisco. Which is to say, not often at all.

But both snow and clinching celebration were anticipated on Thursday night, as the temperature outside dropped and vulnerable Gonzaga arrived in cozy McKeon Pavilion.

But at the end of the night, there was just more of the usual: steady rain outside.

And inside? Gonzaga thwarting its WCC challengers, beating St. Mary's 89-85 in overtime to silence the Gaels' raucous crowd and remind everyone who remains the alpha dog in the WCC.

"We pride ourselves in winning league championships," said Bulldogs coach Mark Few. "That's what we've done. That's our motivation. We win league championships and go to the NCAA Tournament."

Gonzaga -- which has won 10 straight WCC regular season titles -- hasn't won its 11th consecutive yet. And, despite its status as regular entrant, is not a lock for the NCAA tournament. But with the win, the Bulldogs pulled into a tie for first place with can clinch a share of the title with a win on Saturday against last-place San Diego.

St. Mary's, in contrast, hasn't won the conference championship since 1989. Now the Gaels must find a way to set aside both disappointment and downward spiral. The Gaels, once clearly in command of the WCC, have lost three straight and must win the season finale against Portland to salvage a piece of the title and regain some momentum heading into next week's conference tournament in Las Vegas.

Last season, St. Mary's made it to the Sweet 16. Now, the Gaels' best -- perhaps only -- hope of making the NCAA Tournament is to repeat as the WCC tournament winner.

"I think when a team is in our situation you have to always go in with the sense that you have to win the conference tournament," Mickey McConnell said. "Losing three in a row doesn't help at this point in the season."

McConnell is projected to be the WCC Player of the Year. The senior point guard hit an off-balance game winner with 1.2 seconds remaining against Gonzaga in Spokane in January, the win that put the Gaels in the WCC driver's seat.

But on Thursday night, McConnell's magic was missing. He missed two potential game-winners: a three-pointer in regulation and a layup with 11.9 seconds to play in overtime.

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"I had a great look," he said of the last shot. "Nine times out of 10 you're probably going to make it."

Coach Randy Bennett was not about to second-guess McConnell's attempts.

"How many big shots has Mickey made for us?" Bennett asked.

Despite the Gaels' inopportune slump, neither Bennett nor his players seem terribly alarmed. McConnell said the team played better than it did in losses to lowly San Diego and in a nonconference game against Utah State. He took solace in his team's ability to overcome a ten-point second half deficit to force overtime.

"I thought we were focused. I thought our composure was pretty good," McConnell said. "But we didn't close at the end."

Bennett pointed out that the both regular season meetings have been last-second affairs.

"These teams are pretty close," Bennett said.

But the reality is that the WCC measuring stick remains Gonzaga, even during what is considered a down year for the Bulldogs.

On Thursday, Gonzaga -- refusing to wilt in the face of a deafening crowd and its "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oy Oy Oy" chants -- proved it is not ready to be dethroned.

"We were looking at this game for so long," said Sam Dower, Gonzaga's leading scorer, with 21 points off the bench, including four huge free throws in overtime.

Gonzaga can win its sixth straight game on Saturday, clinch a share of the WCC title and head into the tournament with plenty of momentum.

"We want to keep our streak going," Dower said. "We don't want to end it."

Snow is still predicted for the Moraga area this weekend. An outright regular season title for St. Mary's is no longer in the forecast. Check back for a revised forecast for a Gaels' NCAA tournament berth.