Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are arch-rivals. They're the WCC's two best teams. More over, they're arguably the two best teams on the west coast. They came into this game tied atop the conference with identical 7-0 records.
The Zags made a statement tonight. They're ranked third in the nation and first in the WCC, by a mile.
All the makings of a hotly contested rivalry game were there. Early on, it looked like that's what we would get. But some combination of factors made it anything but from the start of the second half until the final horn sounded.
Some of those factors were visible and obvious. Kevin Pangos, who finished tied for the game high with 14 points, is an elite floor general entering the home stretch of his career. Gonzaga's defense is uncharacteristically smothering; "where is Waldow" chants rained down from the Kennel Club as incessant double-teams took the Gaels' 20-and-10 averaging big man out of his comfort zone. The Zags' offense is pick your poison, focus on the bigs or lock down the guards, and both are equally potent. Finally, Domantas Sabonis doesn't play for Kentucky but he might be the best freshman in the country — his 13 rebounds tonight are a new career high.
Another factor, which isn't easily visible, maybe the Gaels just weren't ready for this. They've played one good road game this season, a loss at St. John's — and now the Johnnies are stumbling through conference play, tarnishing how they looked earlier in the year.
Randy Bennett's Gaels held the hyperspeed offense of BYU in check on Saturday. For the first 15 minutes tonight, the Gaels won the tempo battle against the Zags.
While the Zags managed to hold the lead for most of the first half, they weren't able to pull ahead by more than five points. Brad Waldow, as he has done for much of the year, looked superhuman. Despite constantly having to battle two Gonzaga bigs at a time, Waldow scored 10 points (on 4-6 shooting) in the first half. Saint Mary's had just 21 total points in the half.
As the second half wound down, Gary Bell Jr. figured out how to break thru the Gaels defense. The senior guard scored the final five points of the half for the Zags, giving them their first three-possession lead of the game.
A guard pushed the Zags out to a comfortable lead but it was the bigs who put the game away early in the second half.
Pick your poison.
Meanwhile, for the Gaels, Brad Waldow was both found and disappeared. I know that sounds contradictory but allow me to explain. Waldow had just as many points (four) in the second half as he had fouls. The refs found him, after calling no fouls on him in the first, but he was nowhere to be found in the good side of the stat sheet.
As the Zags began to run away with this one their starting bigs showed just how differently they play the game of basketball.
Przemek Karnowski isn't the most athletic dunker, but each time the seven-foot-one, 288 pound center goes up the backboard is put in grave danger. He did that on back-to-back possessions, at the 11:08 and 10:40 marks, to push the Zags out from a five to nine point lead.
On the following defensive possession Karnowski picked up his third foul.
Not to worry, Kyle Wiltjer was there to keep alive the Zags' points in the paint onslaught. Wiltjer blocked an Emmett Naar three point attempt on one end and took the ball coast-to-coast. Karnowski brings the power, Wiltjer the agility. As he drove to the hoop he took the ball behind his back to finish with his body shielding the defender.
It might have been good that the Zags put on a clinic, because Saint Mary's offense was hobbling down the stretch.
When it mattered most, final ten minutes but still close enough to make a comeback, the Gaels couldn't get anything right.
Garrett Jackson hit a three with 11:45 to play. Saint Mary's wouldn't score again for over four minutes. After that they went over three minutes scoreless. Kerry Carter was missing free throws and stepping out of bounds. Aaron Bright was taking bad shots and throwing up bricks.
It got ugly. The Gaels weren't ready. If they can't take down the Zags, who can?