RECAP: Gonzaga Bulldogs Topple Top-Seed Saint Mary’s to Earn 18th-Straight NCAA Tournament Appearance

All five Gonzaga starters scored in double-figures, including Domantas Sabonis (15 points, 8 rebounds), as the Bulldogs secured their 18th straight NCAA Tournament appearance with an 85-75 win over Saint Mary's in the WCC Championship game.
All five Gonzaga starters scored in double-figures, including Domantas Sabonis (15 points, 8 rebounds), as the Bulldogs secured their 18th straight NCAA Tournament appearance with an 85-75 win over Saint Mary’s in the WCC Championship game.

For the first time in a long time, the Gonzaga Bulldogs didn’t look unbeatable in the West Coast Conference. They failed to win the regular season crown, and it looked as if they needed to win the post-season tournament to keep their NCAA Tournament streak intact.

Firmly on the bubble, the Bulldogs entered Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, NV on a mission. Wins over the Portland Pilots and the BYU Cougars put the Bulldogs one win away from dancing in March for the 18th consecutive season.

Only one team stood in their way, and that was the regular season champion Saint Mary’s Gaels. By virtue of a tiebreaker, the Gales finished atop the conference despite both teams having identical 15-3 records in conference play.

Gonzaga was swept in the regular season by the Gaels, and were out for some redemption. On a neutral court, and with the title on the line, the Bulldogs won when it mattered most.

With their 85-75 win over the Gaels in the West Coast Conference finale, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are back in the Big Dance once more, and all is right in the college basketball world, at least for the time being.

Both teams came out of the gate on fire, as neither missed a shot over the first two-plus minutes of the contest. Joe Rahon hit a three pointer to give the Gaels an early 11-8 lead at the 17:35 mark. Gonzaga missed their first shot of the game on the next possession, as Eric McClellan’s three point attempt was off the mark.

Back-to-back turnover from Dane Pineau gave Gonzaga two quick baskets, and they took a 16-13 advantage as a result.

Saint Mary’s didn’t miss a shot until the 15:27 mark of the half.

The Gaels would retake the lead just before the halfway point of the first stanza, using a three from Evan Fitzner to take a 21-18 lead. Gonzaga would respond, taking the lead back shortly thereafter, and holding it for the remainder of the half.

Gonzaga’s lead would reach as many as 10 points in the first half, as Kyle Wiltjer hit a three to give them a 37-27 lead with just over 5 to play in the half. Saint Mary’s would try to cut into the lead as the half wound down, but Gonzaga maintained their advantage and took a 43-35 advantage into the locker room.

Out of the gate in the second half, the Gaels came out looking to erase the Bulldogs’ lead and make it a closely contested game. After chipping away, a three pointer from Emmett Naar cut the lead to 54-51 with 13:24 to play. Kyle Dranginis responded with a jumper on the next possession to restore a five-point lead for the Bulldogs.

Under two minutes later, Naar hit another three and the deficit was down to just 2 points with plenty of time on the clock for the Gaels to complete the comeback and take a lead of their own. They would get the deficit down to a single point later on in the game, but were never able to overtake the Bulldogs for the lead.

Gonzaga held on tight to the lead, and were able to fend off the comeback efforts of the Gaels. When Rahon connected on a three pointer to cut the deficit to 1 with under 7 minutes to play, the Bulldogs didn’t panic.

Instead, they reeled off a 9-2 run, thanks in large part to strong free throw shooting, to push their lead back to 8 and regain control of the contest.

Down the stretch, the lead reached as many as 11, and the Gaels would never threaten the lead again on the night.

Things looked bleak throughout the season, but the Bulldogs are NCAA Tournament-bound for the 18th-straight season after their 85-75 win over the Saint Mary’s Gaels.

Game Leaders

All five starters for the Bulldogs scored in double-figures, and they accounted for a whopping 81 of the team’s 85 points on the night. Eric McClellan scored a team-high 20 points to lead the way. Domantas Sabonis narrowly missed a double-double, recording 15 points and 8 rebounds in the win.

Kyle Wiltjer chipped in with 17 points, while freshman Josh Perkins recorded 16 points and 5 assists of his own.

The Gaels put up a good fight in the second half, but weren’t able to overcome the halftime deficit. Emmett Naar scored a game-high 25 points, on 9-of-18 shooting from the floor, to go along with his 6 assists. Dane Pineau also narrowly missed a double-double, recording 9 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.

Joe Rahon chipped in with 16 points in a losing effort.

Looking Ahead

The streak lives on, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-7, 15-3) silenced their critics and are dancing in March for the 18th straight time. It took some fight in the second half, but the Bulldogs finally notched a win over the Gaels in 2015-16. They aren’t as highly-regarded as they have been in year’s past, but the Bulldogs will be a tough out for any team come NCAA Tournament time.

With the loss, fans and players alike are wondering what could’ve been for the Saint Mary’s Gaels (27-5, 15-3). As the regular season champion, the Gaels are automatically invited to take part in the NIT. Whether they receive an at-large berth into the Big Dance or not, the Gaels are post-season bound this season, and will be a threat in whichever field they find themselves in.

– T.B.