Gonzaga and Saint Mary's is one of the nation's best rivalries. Tonight it was just a little bit better than normal.
The Gaels needed a win to remain in contention for a share of the WCC regular season title and keep their at-large hopes alive. Gonzaga needed a win to lock that title up outright — which would be the 18th in school history, all coming since 1994 —, remain on track for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament and set a new program record for consecutive wins.
Plus Patty Mills was in the house, along some of his San Antonio Spurs teammates, for a halftime jersey retiring ceremony.
The Gaels punched Gonzaga in the mouth right out of the gate. Saint Mary's went up 4-0 early after two Brad Waldow lay-ups. Then they blitzed the Zags with a barrage of threes — hey, Patty Mills was in the house after all — and put the third ranked team in the nation on full upset alert.
Over the first ten minutes of the game Saint Mary's made six three pointers. Desmond Simmons knocked down the first, Gaels led by five. Then it was Kerry Carter to give the Gaels a six point lead. Aaron Bright connected from deep to extend the lead to nine. Calvin Hermanson knocked one down to keep it a nine point game before Emmett Naar extended it to 12 points.
Saint Mary's missed just one three pointer during that span.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga went 2-5 from three. There was a stretch with four straight misses from the field along with two Kyle Wiltjer misses from the charity stripe.
The Zags have arguably the nation's best offense. They held Saint Mary's to 2-15 shooting from deep in the first meeting this season, en route to an easy 21 point victory.
This is a rivalry, after all, so while it didn't fit the mold of this season it wasn't exactly unexpected.
In their first meeting the Zags relentlessly double teamed Brad Waldow in the paint. Tonight, with the Gaels lighting it up from long range, doubling the Gaels' best player wasn't alone going to shut down Saint Mary's offense.
Naturally, the Gaels largest lead came on an Aaron Bright three pointer late in the half which made it a 17 point game.
Coming out of the half Gonzaga got hot, something they've been doing a lot lately.
Randy Bennett called a stop-the-bleeding-timeout just over a minute into the half. Gonzaga opened with three possessions, three shots and seven points in just 1:17 to cut the lead to just four points. It didn't stop the bleeding, because Kyle Wiltjer hit a three to cut the Gaels' lead to one point.
Okay, it didn't stop the bleeding immediately.
Gonzaga followed that hot start with eight straight misses while Saint Mary's rebuilt their lead. Desmond Simmons hit a three with 11 minutes to play to stretch the Gaels' lead back to double digits.
Late in the game the Zags went on another quick run. The first run of the half was 7-0 over 1:17, this run was 10-0 over 2:14. It ended with a Pangos to Przemek Karnowski over-the-top pass to give the Zags their first lead of the game, with 3:51 to play.
The Zags' half-time adjustments to shut the Gaels down from deep worked for the most part, so of course it was Aaron Bright who drilled a three on the Gaels' first possession trailing the Zags.
Saint Mary's made just two three pointers in the second half, after making seven in the first.
The lead was short-lived. For Gonzaga and then for Saint Mary's.
Kevin Pangos hit two free throws to tie it back up, then Brad Waldow hit two of his own. Saint Mary's did not score after that, and there were three minutes left in the game.
Byron Wesley had another quietly impressive game. He finished with 8 points and 9 rebounds, none bigger than the offensive rebound he pulled down with 2:50 to play and the two free throws he knocked down immediately after that.
Then, Kyle Wiltjer took over and sealed the deal with trips to the free throw line and timely blocks and deflections. It wasn't a 45 point night, but 16 and 12 in a clutch performance is as good or better.
Saint Mary's falls to 20-7 with two games left before the WCC Tournament. Gonzaga improves to 28-1 but still has to face BYU in Spokane before heading to Las Vegas.