LAS VEGAS (AP) — Gonzaga stumbled in last year’s West Coast Conference tournament, losing to rival Saint Mary’s in the title game after dominating the regular season.
The Zags won another regular-season title this year with a new group of players and again found themselves in a championship-game fight with the Gaels.
Instead of buckling under the pressure, Gonzaga pushed back with a dominating second half to reclaim the title and, potentially, a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.
Drew Timme scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half, Filip Petrusev had a double-double and No. 2 Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s 84-66 to reclaim the West Coast Conference tournament title Tuesday night.
“It wasn’t always easy, but we adapted at halftime,” said Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi, who had 17 points. “We came out with an edge and that was the difference in the game.”
The top-seeded Zags (31-2) recovered from a middling performance in the semifinals to win their eighth WCC tournament title in 10 years and 17th overall.
Playing in its 23rd straight WCC title game, Gonzaga raced away from the Gaels in a dominating second half.
Ayayi scored 17 points and Petrusev finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds to help the Zags outscore Saint Mary’s 48-22 in the paint.
“They’re really big inside. That’s their strength,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “It’s a little bit of a problem for us because we don’t have the size. They kept bringing it down in the post and that was the story of the game, why they beat us.”
Saint Mary’s (26-8) upset Gonzaga in last year’s title game to earn the WCC’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid and kept pace with the Zags in an entertaining first half this time.
Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts combined to score Saint Mary’s first 34 points to keep things close, but Gonzaga tightened up defensively in the second half to pull away.
Ford finished with 27 points and Fitts 17 for the Gaels, who should be in decent shape to make the NCAA Tournament despite the loss.
“We needed to get the ball out of Jordan Ford’s hands,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He’s an unbelievable player and when he gets going like that and Fitts is making those deep 3s, we had to change the dynamic a little bit.”
The Zags and Gaels eked their way into their 11th title-game meeting.
Gonzaga struggled putting away San Francisco 81-77 in the semis while Saint Mary’s advanced with a 51-50 victory over No. 14 BYU on Ford’s last-second shot.
The Zags won the two regular-season meetings between the rivals by a combined 40 points on their way to claiming an eighth-straight WCC regular-season title.
Petrusev did most of the damage in the final game of the regular season, scoring 27 points.
It was Timme’s time in Las Vegas. The 6-foot-10 freshman repeatedly got deep post position against the Gaels and took advantage, hitting 7 of 8 shots for 15 points in the first half.
Ford and Fitts carried nearly all the load for Saint Mary’s, combining to score but seven of the Gaels’ first-half points.
Gonzaga led 42-41 at halftime.
“It was a good game — for a half,” Bennett said.
The Bulldogs locked in on Ford, Fitts and the rest of the Gaels to start the second half, forcing them to miss six of their first eight shots while building a 56-46 lead.
A short run later in the half pushed Gonzaga’s lead to 72-55 and the Zags onto the stage to accept another WCC tournament trophy.
Not bad for a team that had to replace four starters.
“From where we were in September, even the first real practices we had in October, this is as far as any club I’ve ever coached,” Few said.
Saint Mary’s was unable to conjure up the same magic it had last year, leaving the Gaels to rely on an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Gonzaga showed a strong all-around performance befitting of a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, something it will find out for sure Sunday.
Ford and Fitts combined to hit 12 of 18 shots, including 6 of 9 from the 3-point arc. With the Zags sending extra defenders their way, the duo combined for 10 second-half points on 1-of-9 shooting.
“Every time I would come off the on-ball (screen), they would send a second guy and force the ball out of my hands,” Ford said. “It got a little frustrating for me, but I just tried to trust my teammates.”
Saint Mary’s awaits word if it will be selected for the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga will play in the NCAA Tournament,an expected No. 1 seed.
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