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LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga had finally shaken free of Santa Clara here Saturday night, and the Zag fans streamed down a hallway onto the floor of the Orleans Hotel and Casino. They would spend the next few hours whooping it up, a fan base that outnumbers any other here besides BYU, by, oh, maybe six to one.

Ritual stuff for these people, tracking a winning team and doing a late-winter party in Vegas.

Next is another Gonzaga routine Monday night — meeting Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament.

“It wouldn’t be the WCC tournament without playing Gonzaga,” smiled Saint Mary’s forward Beau Levesque.

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Except it’s happening in the semifinals, which seems a little crazy in that they’ve met in the last five finals. But then, it’s been a weird season in Moraga, Calif.

For Jim Shaw, make that a weird year.

The name will be familiar. Shaw had been an assistant coach on Lorenzo Romar’s staff at Washington since May 2004, which means he rode shotgun for almost all the Huskies’ successes in almost a decade’s time. He can recite them almost as if you’re reading a page from the media guide.

“As an assistant, always be aware your No. 1 job is to make the boss look good,” Shaw said here Sunday afternoon. “Overall, I think I was part of being able to do that.

“I look at it as being able to take pride in the most successful time in school history.”

But the Huskies didn’t make the NCAA tournament two years ago, sat out again last season and Romar decided to make some staff changes. Initially, they didn’t involve Shaw, who had already had a feeler from Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, with whom he had worked under Romar at Saint Louis.

Two months later, Romar decided to expand the housecleaning to include Shaw.

“The timing was May, so certainly it’s unique,” said Shaw.

But he asks for a positive spin, and indeed, Saint Mary’s has helped make it so. He was quickly hired as a special assistant to the head coach. You know, the head coach who went on vacation for two weeks in midseason.

Well, it wasn’t exactly vacation. Saint Mary’s was whacked by the NCAA a year ago for a rogue former assistant, and part of the penalty was Bennett having to separate himself completely from the program for five games starting with the league season.

That couldn’t have been any tougher on Bennett than say, Anthony Bourdain not eating for two weeks. What made it harder was, the Gaels had just spoiled a 9-0 start by losing three straight games in the Diamond Head Classic, games that begged for some adjustment. Instead, Bennett had to go underground.

Nominally, Eran Ganot, the longest-tenured assistant, was in charge, but coaching the Gaels became a committee effort.

“You know what to do,” Shaw said, remembering Bennett’s charge.

“He’s a ridiculous competitor,” said Levesque. “It was probably weird for him. It was weird for us, too.”

Been that kind of year for Saint Mary’s (22-10). The Gaels hardly folded during Bennett’s hiatus, but they coughed up a 12-point lead to lose at home to Santa Clara on a trey with two seconds left by Jared Brownridge (Zag fans can appreciate that). They led BYU by 12 in the second half and lost that one, too.

Even the whitewash in Hawaii was more a crisis of crunch time than a systems failure. Saint Mary’s lost three by a total of 13 points.

Point is, the Gaels could be more dangerous to Gonzaga than reflected in the 22- and 28-point lashings applied by the Zags. But center Brad Waldow has to be better than the combined 16 points and 4-for-16 shooting of the first two games, and so do guards James Walker III and Stephen Holt (2 for 21 between them). In 80 minutes, the Gaels have shot an icy .273 against GU.

“We’ve got to attack ‘em, try to throw the first punch,” Walker said. “Try to punk ‘em.”

“As soon as I came to Saint Mary’s,” Waldow recalled, “the first thing I was told was, ‘We don’t like Gonzaga here.’ ”

The staff gets rejiggered, the season is uncharacteristically challenging. But some things never change.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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