LAS VEGAS — At tipoff, Orleans Arena seemed a little more subdued than usual for a Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga game. The crowd must have sensed this was Zags-Gaels Lite.
Where was Omar Samhan, baiting the Zags? Where was Robert Sacre, giving it back? Where was the Mouthpiece, Matt Dellavedova, and the Headband, Kelly Olynyk?
Sans the sizzle of recent years — and their ritual matchup in the final — the Zags soldiered through Saint Mary’s on Monday night in a campaign that was more functional than frilly. Gonzaga dispatched the Gaels in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals, 70-54, to get to the championship against the winner of Brigham Young vs. San Francisco winner.
Among other benefits, it virtually assures the Zags (27-6) a 16th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, inasmuch as a loss to either BYU or San Francisco wouldn’t be judged a bad one.
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“From a coaching point of view, it was great to see,” said Zags coach Mark Few, after his 401st victory. “Plan A wasn’t always working, Plan B wasn’t always working, but these guys stayed with it and found different ways to be successful.”
Stylistically, it wasn’t the same as Gonzaga’s earlier 73-51 and 75-47 landslides over the Gaels this season. Saint Mary’s promised a different game plan and delivered, opting to be more physical down low and commit to harnessing Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower, who had tattooed them in the first meetings.
Those two combined for only three baskets in 15 attempts, and Saint Mary’s Brad Waldow showed up this time, hitting 5 of 7 shots for a team-leading 14 points.
But Saint Mary’s picked its poison, this time opting for arsenic over hemlock. David Stockton and Gary Bell Jr. combined for 13 of 21 from the field and 35 points, Stockton in particular allowed to roam free on the perimeter.
Stockton has been assertive in 80 minutes in Las Vegas, driving for the winning basket against Santa Clara and scoring 21 points, with six rebounds, four assists and no turnovers vs. the Gaels.
He’d be the tournament MVP if they chose it after two games.
Gaels coach Randy Bennett tried to walk the fine line between praise and perspective.
“We don’t guard him,” he said. “Their bigs are such a factor, you have to help somewhere. Some of it has to do with how we play him. I don’t want to take anything away from him. He played good tonight.”
So did Bell, muscling the ball to the hole, hitting his only two threes and, as Stockton, not turning it over.
“We’re at our best when he’s hunting shots,” Few said.
It was Gonzaga’s sixth consecutive victory over Saint Mary’s. The two teams had collided five successive times in the tournament finals, and a meeting in the semis bespoke that these two have known greater heights.
Saint Mary’s? Without Dellavedova, bit-playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Gaels are a cast of complementary players in search of a star.
Their offensive struggles against Gonzaga in 2013-14 were epic. Twelve minutes into this one, at which point Saint Mary’s trailed 20-7, the Gaels had connected on exactly 30 field goals in 92 minutes this season against the Zags.
They shot 37.3 percent this night — and that was an advancement of 10 percent on the other two games combined.
Starting guards Stephen Holt and James Walker III, both 3 of 9 Monday, went eight of 39 in the three games.
“We just wanted to make sure he sees a lot of eyes,” said Stockton, referring to Holt. “He’s the head of the snake, and we put our best defender on him in Gary. He did a great job.”
“They’re good defensively,” acknowledged Bennett. “They’re the best team in our league defensively. They definitely gave us problems. They gave us problems last year, too.”
Saint Mary’s closed to 40-31 early in the second half, but Stockton had seven points of a 10-1 run and Gonzaga was uncatchable the rest of the night.
Dower was money again at the foul line, going 8 of 8 to stretch to 23 his streak over two games, a tournament record both for consecutive and total makes.
Tuesday night will mark Gonzaga’s 17th consecutive trip to the final. That’s arresting, even if Zags-Gaels — the ilk we’ve come to know — wasn’t.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com