The best rivalry in the West came to be in part because these teams had a habit of meeting in the WCC Tournament. Normally, or at least in each of the last five seasons, those meetings came in the championship game. This year was a little bit different. A down year for the Gaels, in which they finished fourth in the standings, put them on track to meet the Zags a bit earlier than usual.
Offense is the name of the game in Spokane and Moraga. In Las Vegas, it's defense. Neither team managed to find an open shot or driving lane on the first possession. It took 35 seconds before the Gaels' James Walker put up a shot, that missed, and 35 for the Zags' Gary Bell Jr. to heave an airball at the buzzer.
Neither team had much success speeding up on offense. Gonzaga's offense did find success at putting the ball in the basket, however, while the Gaels were inept early.
Gary Bell Jr. was on fire early. By spending much of the half outscoring the Gaels, he helped Gonzaga maintain double-digit leads with at least twice as many points as Saint Mary's. It took until he went to the bench at 7:06, with nine points, for the Gaels to begin cutting into the Zags' lead.
A minute and a half after his exit, the Gaels finally surpassed his point total.
Bell was getting it done from the field, both inside and out, but Sam Dower would finish the half with more points. After going 15-15 from the free throw line in the Quarterfinals, Dower went 6-6 in the first half tonight.
Going against Dower was Brad Waldow. His life was made difficult early because the Zags, as they had done in their last meeting, sent Dower and Przemek Karnowski his way each time he got the ball. Once Karnowski went the the bench, Waldow was able to get going. By halftime he had a team high nine points on 4-4 shooting.
At the half the Zags held an eleven point, 31-20, lead.
Saint Mary's had been slowly pulling closer in the final minutes of the first half and continued to do so early in the second. It seemed as if a close game was in order when the Gaels 7-2 start to the half made it a six point game. It was the first time in over 13 minutes that the Zags' lead was less than three possessions.
There's something about the number three and Kevin Pangos. Lacking a three possession lead he awoke from his slumber (two points, no field goal attempts in the first half). His first shot, a three, came with 17:13 and it pushed the Zags' lead back to three possessions, 36-27.
Pangos sparked a 14-5 run over five minutes that pushed the lead to 18 points, 50-32.
During the run David Stockton scored nine of his 21 points. On the defensive end, Drew Barham played the part of Mike Hart impersonator. He chased down loose balls, took a charge, had a steal and block.
Stockton didn't stop with the end of the run, either. He scored more points in the second half, 16, than any Gael managed over the whole game.
Despite never really being close, shooting poorly from the field and the line and getting into foul trouble, the Gaels wouldn't let the Zags blow the game open. Guards James Walker and Stephen Holt did what they could to keep their team in it. Holt got to work drawing fouls and hitting free throws, 7 of his 11 second half points came from the line. Walker was more active from the field and on defense.
Looking at a 19 point deficit and less than four minutes of game time, Eividas Petrulis, a three point specialist, came into the game for the Gaels. He's connected on 53% of his threes this season but missed his only attempt tonight.
With just under two minutes to play Kyle Dranginis and bench warmers (which sounds like an awesome band name) took the stage, I mean floor. Boy, did they put on a show. Angel Nunez brought the crowd to its feet with an emphatic slam dunk. Kerry Carter quickly put them back into their seats with a follow up slam of his own. Nunez answered, but this time with just a layup.
In the end, it was the third time this season the Zags have blown out the Gaels. The West's best rivalry hasn't been quite the same this season and not just because the third meeting came a game early. Unfortunately, with sanctions setting in for Saint Mary's next season, this could be the norm going forward, rather than the exception.
What is certainly the norm is Gonzaga playing in the WCC Tournament final. Monday will mark the Zags' 17th consecutive appearance in the game. The Zags will face the winner of the San Francisco vs. BYU semifinal.