Familiar foes have to fight to ensure another WCC championship matchup

click to enlarge Joel Ayayi defends against St Mary's Tommy Kuhse at the McCarthey Athletic Center. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Joel Ayayi defends against St Mary's Tommy Kuhse at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
For the 23rd consecutive season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are heading to the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game. It wasn’t as easy as usual this time around, though.

Monday’s semifinal was the fifth meeting between Gonzaga and San Francisco over the past two seasons. Gonzaga had won each of the previous four, and done so by an average margin of 16 points per game. Taken at face value, that seems like a dominant run for the Zags over the Dons.

Over that same span, though, no other West Coast Conference team played Gonzaga as close, on average, as San Francisco. Not Saint Mary’s, which Gonzaga outscored on average by 17.8 points per game, and not BYU, which Gonzaga outscored on average by 18.5 points per game.

Just looking at this season, which saw the Dons lead Gonzaga at halftime in both of the first two meetings, one would have been wise to expect a close game in Vegas.

“The rest of our games are going to be like this,” head coach Mark Few says. “On one hand we can’t say there’s more parity in college basketball than ever and everybody's shrunk closer to the mean and then be shocked when games are close.”

Early on, it looked like Gonzaga might handle this game with ease. The Zags pounded the ball into the paint as they have all season long. It resulted in easy baskets and led to quick foul trouble for the Dons, who saw their first five fouls of the game go to big men. Those fouls came back to haunt San Francisco when starting center Jimbo Lull fouled out of the game with 2:20 left to play.

Lull’s exit came just as the tide was turning away from his team and towards the Zags.

With 5:11 to play, senior guard Jordan Ratinho hit a three and the lead swung back to San Francisco. It silenced the overwhelmingly pro-Gonzaga crowd, turning energy to palpable anxiety in an instant.

Joel Ayayi, however, was unfazed. The sophomore took over down the stretch, scoring eight of the Zags’ next 11 points. Ayayi hit three massive buckets during that span, and accounted for all of Gonzaga’s field goals over the final five minutes of the game.

“I was excited,” Few says of the game. “I thought we were really good in the end of game stuff and held off a very, very good San Francisco team.”

The final points came from senior Killian Tillie, who hit two free throws to push Gonzaga’s lead to 4 with 11 seconds left. Gonzaga won 81-77. It was just one more big, clutch moment for the senior inside of Orleans Arena.

“We’ve had a great run in Vegas,” Tillie says. “Still got one more game tomorrow so we’re focused on that and finishing it strong.”

That final game will come against the No. 3 seed Saint Mary’s Gaels. For the 11th time in the past 17 seasons it will be Zags versus Gaels, two arch-rivals, in the WCC Tournament championship game.

Saint Mary’s squeaked past BYU despite playing poorly for almost the entire game. The Cougars never managed to pull away from the Gaels, however, in part because they kept shooting themselves in the foot.

With 8:30 remaining in the game, the Cougars were clinging to a 5-point lead, and then everything changed. The Gaels pulled down a rebound and started out on a fastbreak, which was stopped by the referees almost immediately. The reason? BYU’s Zac Seljaas fell to the ground behind Saint Mary’s Malik Fitts. Offensive foul on the Gaels. 

The officials went to the monitor for a review, and determined that Fitts did nothing wrong. Seljaas decided to try his hand at acting and flopped. The call was reversed, Saint Mary’s was given the ball and the Gaels stormed off on a quick 6-0 run to take the lead. To make things worse, BYU head coach Mark Pope was so upset at the referees that he was given a technical foul for yelling at them.

The Cougars unraveled and the Gaels stepped up, ultimately winning on a Jordan Ford jumper with 1.4 seconds to go.
Gonzaga players mentioned wanting to face BYU on Tuesday, seeking revenge for the Cougars win over the Zags last month. They won’t get that, but they will get a shot at revenge against the team which upset them in last year’s WCC Tournament championship game.

Gonzaga versus Saint Mary’s

Tuesday, March 10 at 6 pm

Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

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