It still can't play the slots here in Vegas, but if you personify Gonzaga's streak you've now got an adult on your hands.
This was a quintessential display of what happens when these two teams meet. Exceptionally efficient offensive basketball from two teams, in a raucous environment, with a game that was up for grabs until the end. In that end, though, Gonzaga won. And the Zags have guaranteed an 18th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament as a result.
The all-tournament team featured four of the players from the title game, two from each side. Emmett Naar (25 points, 6 assists) and Joe Rahon (16 points) represented the Gaels while Domantas Sabonis (15 points) represented the Zags along with MVP Kyle Wiltjer (17 points). While the Zags were represented by their two big men it was the guards who keyed Gonzaga's victory tonight.
"They've grown," head coach Mark Few said of his young guards
Leading the charge in the backcourt was the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, senior Eric McClellan, who scored a team high 20 points tonight. His defensive effort, and recent offensive emergence, helped Gonzaga turn eight Gaels turnovers into 20 points.
Both teams came out swinging. After all, these are two strong offenses — Saint Mary's entered tonight leading the nation in field goal percentage — and they made their first eight shots. They would continue by combining to make 18 of their first 20. Watching that performance the 7,418 people who had packed Orleans Arena went crazy.
"They [Gonzaga coaches] preach to us all the time about coming out and just letting it rip," McClellan said. "It's just fun like that, especially championship game in an environment like this, it's fun."
Gonzaga shot 69% in the first half while Saint Mary's hit 50% from the field. Despite both offenses lighting it up this was not a game devoid of defense. The Gaels rank 17th in the nation in assist rate, with helpers coming on 62% of their makes. In the first half tonight they had just three assists.
Saint Mary's opened the second half with a three ball from Calvin Hermanson (9 points), just like they had in the first half when Rahon hit back-to-back threes on the opening possessions. Against Gonzaga's top-ten in the nation three point percentage defense the Gaels connected on 12 of 25 shots from long range. The three ball kept them in the game.
With 13:21 to play Naar hit a three and brought the Gaels back within one possession of the Zags for the first time since the 10:21 mark of the first half.
Gonzaga had managed to hold onto a two-possession lead for most of the game up until that point, but then the Gaels got back in it. Gonzaga was willing to switch bigs onto guards so the Gaels started forcing their hand. It was reminiscent of the 2012 WCC Tournament — which the Gaels won — in which Gonzaga center Rob Sacre was switched onto Saint Mary's point guard Matthew Dellavedova repeatedly down the stretch. This time it was Wiltjer, and occasionally Sabonis, finding themselves tasked with guarding Naar at the point. Naar was ruthlessly efficient in that situation, scoring back-to-back lay-ups and drawing a number of fouls.
"I think we prepared for that a little bit," Naar said. "We just tried to get some penetration and see what happens off of that."
Eventually the Zags realized that wasn't working for them, so they stopped switching their bigs. And that adjustment worked wonderfully.
Saint Mary's missed seven straight shots down the stretch, from the 6:18 mark into the final minute. During that span the Zags guards went to work drawing fouls and making free throws. Over the final six minutes the Zags scored 14 of their final 19 points from the free throw line. All but two of which came from guards, and most came from McClellan.
A breakaway dunk in the final minute from McClellan, who was all alone in the frontcourt when he slammed it home, set the house on fire while all but icing the game.
It ended a long season that was more turbulent than most for the Zags. That might not be such a bad thing, though, from a coaches' perspective.
"No way could I ever be more proud of a team," Few said.