The past month may not have technically been a tour of redemption for Gonzaga, but it sure as heck felt like it. For a team that seriously seemed lost in late January, it is truly hard to imagine just how they managed to wrap up a 13th straight tournament appearance and yet another West Coast Conference tournament crown. Tonight's game against Saint Mary's was the rubber match between the two top teams in the conference but it definitely carried a little more weight. Since the Zags began stumbling early in the season, all the talk had shifted to how Saint Mary's had the chance to become the top dog in the West Coast Conference. With all that in mind, it was pretty obvious from early on that Gonzaga came out on a mission to prove that the WCC was still firmly in their grasp. Thanks in large part to some great offensive balance and some timely defensive stops, the Zags leave Las Vegas as WCC Tournament champs as they took down the Gaels by a mark of 75-63.
From the tip, there was no mistaking what type of game this was going to be. There was plenty of contact and it was reffed by WCC refs so there were plenty of fouls. The Zags came out and wanted to be the aggressor both on offense and defense. Mark Few's intent was to establish Steven Gray at the outset and let things fall into place from there. The Bulldogs and Gaels were both clicking early as the lead swung back and forth between the two teams and there was never really any long lasting momentum. In my eyes, the game took a major turn right at halftime. Gonzaga scored the last five points of the half, including a beautiful runner by Marquise as the clock expired to take a five point lead into the locker room. That momentum boost and slight cushion was an early indicator that the Zags were going to pull this thing out.
more after the jump...During that first half, there was another story brewing and that was the Rob Jones foul situation. The standout Gaels forward really played silly basketball throughout this game as it was clear he allowed a questionable call early on to snowball. With ten minutes left in the first half, Jones had picked up his second foul, argued it, and was T'd up. From that point on, Jones was virtually pedestrian. He became tentative offensively and was never able to get anything going. By the time he fouled out with 5:30 left in the game, Jones was virtually already checked out as he finished with six points on 3-7 shooting.
Jones' play didn't completely derail the Gaels as they managed to vanquish the Bulldogs second half lead by the 13 minute mark of the second half. While Gonzaga played a very solid game, they once against struggled to execute when it seemed like they could have really put the dagger in early. Robert Sacre was challenged at the start of the second half and really struggled. He missed a couple point range buckets, had a few turnovers and was rattled in the early going. While he wasn't scoring, I couldn't help but be impressed by the way Rob truly did own the interior. He had a couple extremely athletic and well timed blocks on slashing Gaels guards and came down with some big boards down the stretch. Rob also cashed in on 8-10 free throws and had himself a pretty solid all around game.
If you missed the entire game, I would really only recommend watching from about 12 minutes left in the second half until 5 minutes left. In that seven minute stretch, the Zags went from down a point to up eight points and, in the process, two Gaels fouled out. During this time, David Stockton was the star of the show. Stockton assisted a Sam Dower lay-up, created a great driving lay-up for himself, and then hit a huge three pointer at the top of the arc with 6:40 left to give the Zags a 58-53 lead. Within the next minute and change, Rob Jones and Mitchell Young would foul out and aside from a Clint Steindl three that briefly made Gonzaga fans sweat, the game was firmly in the grasp.
While I can't even imagine what the team and coaching staff is feeling, I know that as a fan, this feels pretty remarkable. There was a time not too long ago when there was serious worry that this team might not even finish second in the conference, much less win their 11th straight regular season title and follow it up with a tournament crown. I don't have the energy to diagnose all the changes this team has made but it boils down to players stepping up. When you look at guys like Marquise Carter and Sam Dower that went from lost to legends. Then you take a player like David Stockton who has gradually improved since the beginning of the year. There are a lot of story lines with this team that many of us couldn't fathom a mere month or so ago. All I can say is this is a pretty damn amazing program and my hat goes off to Mark Few, the staff, and the entire team on a job very well done.