Zags Heading To Big Dance For 13th Straight Season
March 7, 2011
LAS VEGAS (AP) - Gonzaga's Steven Gray didn't mind walking away from Monday night's showdown with Saint Mary's sporting four stitches above his left eye.
A sense of peace numbed any pain he felt after Gonzaga's 75-63 win gave the Bulldogs their second West Coast Conference tournament title in three years.
"It's a great feeling knowing that come Sunday, we're not sitting there sweating," Gray said of Gonzaga earning an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament for its 13th straight appearance. "It's a great feeling to know we're in."
Saint Mary's (24-8) will have to hope for an at-large berth after losing four times in the last six games, including an 89-85 overtime loss to the Bulldogs on Feb. 24.
Monday night's matchup was just as close, even if the final score might not reflect it. Although it was hard-fought and physical, Gray's cut came when he ran into a teammate.
The game was tied at 53 when Gonzaga reserve Sam Dower started an 8-0 run with a pick-and-roll layup. Freshman guard David Stockton, with Hall of Fame father John Stockton in the stands, hit a 3-pointer to put Gonzaga ahead 58-53.
Saint Mary's got within 3 points, at 61-58 on a 3-pointer by Clint Steindl. But Elias Harris countered with a tip-in, and Robert Sacre added two free throws and a powerful dunk off a pass from Stockton to put it out of reach.
The win more than made up for an 81-62 loss to Saint Mary's in last year's WCC tourney finals.
Sacre finished with 12 points, four blocks and eight rebounds, while Gray had a team-high 15 points, tourney MVP Marquise Carter had 11 and Dower 10.
"He's a load," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said of the 7-foot Sacre. "He really goes to the boards hard. He's a good offensive rebounder, and he's big and strong."
It helped that Gonzaga's determination to go inside forced the Gaels' big men into early foul trouble. Rob Jones and Tim Williams both had three personals by halftime, and Jones and Mitchell Young both fouled out with more than five minutes remaining.
Gonzaga capitalized, outscoring Saint Mary's 34-14 in the paint.
"We realized they were in foul trouble," Carter said. "Every timeout, Coach told us to get the ball inside. We went out, executed, made smart decisions."
With Saint Mary's post players in foul trouble, guards Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova tried to shoulder the load. McConnell, last year's tourney MVP and this year's WCC Player of the Year, led all scorers with 24 points and Dellavedova added 21.
But it was Stockton who came up with perhaps the biggest shot with 6:37 remaining.
"Stock's was huge," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the 5-11 guard. "He's got great instincts, a great feel for the game. Early on, he was a little bit of a defensive liability, but lately he's been making all kinds of plays on defense. He's always never feared the moment. That's a great quality to have. He stepped up tonight and made a big 3."
Bennett said the Gaels didn't do a good job of guarding Stockton.
"When he comes in the game, the tempo of the game goes up," Bennett said. "He's PWe put our heads down and didn't listen to anybody," said Sacre, who made six late free throws and 8 of 10 overall. "Everybody thought we weren't going to do it this year. But we knuckled down and coach kept harping on us that we're winners." Gonzaga got it done despite struggles early in the season when the Bulldogs lost to San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, Washington State and Notre Dame.
"I haven't been more proud of a group of guys from where we were to where we are now," Few said. "It's been an incredible journey. It taught me a lot about resilience of kids, and believing."
Sacre said it was a matter of blocking out the "noise."
"We put our heads down and didn't listen to anybody," said Sacre, who made six late free throws and 8 of 10 overall. "Everybody thought we weren't going to do it this year. But we knuckled down and coach kept harping on us that we're winners."
While Saint Mary's added a non-conference game to its schedule Friday against Weber State with hopes of gaining some momentum before the postseason, Gonzaga can sit back and relax a bit.
After such a physical game Monday, the Bulldogs deserve it.
"It's an unbelievable feeling even after all the times we've gone (to the NCAAs)," Few said.
The men's team will have company in the postseason as Gonzaga's women also qualified with a 72-46 victory over Saint Mary's in the earlier championship game Monday.
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