Forget about those best-in-the-nation offensive statistics, Saint Mary's fans. Forget about that longest active road winning streak in the nation, Gonzaga fans. This is a rivalry.
Saint Mary's opened the game ice cold inside McKeon Pavilion where they have not lost this season. Gonzaga was red hot thanks to overlooked players. This game didn't play out according to the scouting report. Ultimately it came down to experienced seniors and a raucous home environment. That made for one heck of a college basketball game. A true, exciting rivalry game.
After an opening salvo from Gonzaga, winners of eight straight against Saint Mary's coming into this one, gave this the familiar feeling that Saint Mary's will play its heart out but Gonzaga is still the big man on campus. The familiarity lulled everyone watching to sleep, though they should have known better. That is, because, the final five minutes were college basketball at its finest.
A comeback, lead changes, iffy calls from the human beings whose judgement we rely to officiate this game we love, missed free throws to win it, fouls without fouls to give, a Joe Rahon "brain fart" (his words) and a chance at (after) the buzzer.
Saint Mary's shoots the ball better than any team in the nation, connecting on 53.4% of field goals this season. You'd be excused for not believing that early in this one, though, after opening the game making just four of their first 17 shots. Meanwhile the Zags hit 10 of their first 17 (and six of their first seven).
While the young, inexperienced Gaels were missing Gonzaga's seniors saw an opportunity. Especially one Eric McClellan (23 points). He scored 12 of Gonzaga's first 16 points and connected on back to back threes — a 27% three point shooter entering the game, and third option on offense at best, he was likely not circled on the scouting report.
McClellan got it done on defense, too. He chased down Stefan Gonzalez on the break and swatted away the freshman's lay-up attempt at the 12:16 mark of the first.
But Gonzaga never really pulled too far ahead of the home team. They quieted the crowd, sure, but they didn't silence the Gaels.
With 3:21 remaining in the first Evan Fitzner hit a three that made it a two possession game. More importantly, the score was 26 to 20, Gonzaga. Saint Mary's offense may not have been getting shots to fall but they were still running their offense. Averaging just a hair under 20 seconds per possession this season, the Gaels are among the slowest, most methodical teams in college basketball. Their offense probes and kicks like the Warriors and makes extra passes around the perimeter like the Spurs. They're not an elite team, sure, but they're an elite college offense.
Gonzaga led for most of the game, but the tempo favored the Gaels throughout.
Just as Saint Mary's overlooked ability to control the tempo kept them in it — ESPNU announcers praised the Zags for knocking the Gaels "uptempo" offense out of sync — the Zags overlooked sixth man kept the Gaels out of striking distance.
Senior Kyle Dranginis (13 points) hit two three pointers in the final 90 seconds of the half and Gonzaga led 34-26.
The second half honestly did not seem much different than the first, other than both teams shot better (62.5% FG for both) and scored more points. Gonzaga held a lead and Dranginis was clutch whenever Gonzaga's not-actually-that-large lead was tested.
However, the final five minutes were something else. This is a rivalry, after all.
With 4:47 to play Evan Fitzner (20 points) converted an and-one to make it a one possession game. Seemingly out of nowhere it was 61-58, Gonzaga. Saint Mary's had failed to convert on gifts — shot clock violations and turnovers from the Zags were handed back as defensive rebounds — but Gonzaga hadn't pulled away.
Two minutes later the Gaels two-headed point guard monster took the lead in a classically Saint Mary's style.
Emmett Naar (16 points) led a break and probed with the ball on the right wing. With nowhere to go and numbers against him he pulled back and dished it to Joe Rahon. Saint Mary's went into its offense with Rahon at the top of the key. He then took a screen and drove down the right side of the lane for an easy lay-up.
Saint Mary's 65, Gonzaga 64. Mark Few burns his final timeout.
Kyle Wiltjer (season low 6 points) missed a three moments later, then on a following possession charged into Kyle Clark. Domantas Sabonis (17 points) fell over the falling Clark and injured his shooting hand, though he stayed in the game. Gonzaga's vaunted frontcourt duo had an off night and that late-game series summed it up.
So it was only right that fifth year senior Kyle Dranginis, a man who watched as a redshirt when Saint Mary's won the WCC outright in 2012, would step up and tie the game with 20 seconds left.
But then Sabonis was called for a foul after switching onto a driving Rahon, who may or may not have pushed off. Rahon connected on the first and missed on the second. With seven seconds left, a one point lead and no fouls to give Saint Mary's just had to guard.
The basketball gods would have none of that, a game decided by a bad call will not stand. So Rahon wrapped up McClellan at halfcourt and was bewildered when called for a foul. He'd thought they had a foul to give.
McClellan, with a chance to take the lead, missed. Dranginis fouled on the rebound and Evan Fitzner calmly sunk both.
Gonzaga's Josh Perkins had 2.9 seconds to get the ball up the court and hit a three to send it to overtime, but he needed more than 2.9 seconds. His miss wouldn't have counted had it gone in rather than clang off the right side of the rim.
Saint Mary's improves to 16-2 (7-1) while Gonzaga falls to 14-5 (6-2).