No. 1 Gonzaga (30-2) vs. No. 2 Saint Mary’s (27-5)
Season series: Gonzaga won 2-0
Game time: 6 p.m.
All of the upsets, all of the excitement to this point in the West Coast Conference Tournament has led us back to the league’s standard. A championship game with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are facing each other in the WCC Tournament final for the fifth consecutive year since the conference moved the tournament to a neutral site. The Gaels and Bulldogs have split the first four title games.
“It’s definitely a fierce rivalry because every time we play, there is a lot on the line,” Saint Mary’s guard Matthew Dellavedova said. “We obviously respect them because they are a good program but it’s definitely fierce and nobody is going to be taking a backwards step.”
Gonzaga is the top-ranked team in the land but even the players know they are the ones with something to prove. Saint Mary’s, after all, is the defending tournament champion.
“They’re the defending champs, plain and simple,” Gonzaga forward Elias Harris said. “That’s got to be enough motivation to come out and win it on Monday.”
There are no secrets. There is a ton of respect. The winner is going to the NCAA Tournament.
Saint Mary’s finds itself back in the title game after playing one of its worst games of the season against San Diego in the semifinals.
They shot 37 percent from the field and struggled to convert on multiple second chance opportunities. The Gaels grabbed 23 offensive rebounds, nine by Brad Waldow, and scored 21 second chance points.
Saint Mary’s found itself down by double digits in both the first and second halves.
Waldow kept Saint Mary’s hanging around in the game against San Diego. He had a career-high 23 points and tied a career-high with 16 rebounds.
All of this coming on a night when he had one of his front teeth knocked out on an inadvertent elbow from San Diego forward Chris Manresa. He went to an oral surgeon to have the tooth put back in and the procedure took around 45 minutes.
“When I got hit in the mouth, it was pretty surreal,” Waldow said. “I remember Delly saying, Wall up, wall up,” and I just couldn’t see anything. I just kept my hands up in the air and then eventually I look and see my tooth fly out on the ground.”
“Right now, I’m feeling pretty good, not as sore as I was yesterday.”
Teeth aside, Waldow will need a similar performance in the toughness department against Gonzaga. In the first two matchups, the sophomore center has averaged nine points and 5.5 rebounds but was limited in his activity in the second go-around.
He had only four shot attempts in his 26 minutes.
Facing large deficits is nothing new for the Gaels. They have trailed by 19 to Harvard and won. They trailed by 18 at BYU and won. They trailed by 14 against San Diego on Saturday and won.
They trailed by 20 at Gonzaga and had a chance to win with less than a minute left.
“That is where this team is pretty good,” Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said. “They stick together, they stay with it when it’s tough. There is no one on our team who didn’t think that shot was going in when Matt took it. They hang together. They have good belief.”
“We’re doing things a little better than in the first two times we played them,” Bennett said. “They test you in about every phase. Transition, rebounding, defensively, defending the three. The whole deal. We have to be solid in all areas.”
“Once again, we’re going to have to match or beat the intensity of our opponent,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “There is a sense of desperation when you don’t know if you’re in the [NCAA] Tournament or not. I don’t think for the first half we did that and in the second half we did a nice job of coming out and making sure we did play with the proper amount of emotion you need to in March.”
Gonzaga also struggled early on against LMU to get points on the board. The Bulldogs shot 37 percent in the first half and held a mere one-point lead. But the energy changed in the second and they rolled to a win.
Elias Harris played a very large role in that as he led the Bulldogs in points, rebounds, and blocks.
“Over the course of my four years playing here, it’s obviously a great rivalry playing them,” Harris said. “There is a lot of emotion, a lot of energy. It’s like a love-hate relationship, I would say. It makes it a lot of fun playing them.”
The first game came down to the wire as Saint Mary’s nearly erased a 20-point lead but a Dellavedova three that would have tied it was off the mark. Gonzaga’s most recent meeting with Saint Mary’s ended in a 17-point rout by the Bulldogs in Moraga and held Dellavedova to three second half points.
“[We] can handle physical play, [we] can handle a fast pace, we can handle a slow pace and not get frustrated,” Few said about his team’s ability to adjust. “We’ve been able to adapt man or zone. We’ve also been able to, I think, not so well in stretches in games and get it solved down the stretch, which is tough to do in any form of athletics.”
That has been on display in the two games. In the first matchup, it was led by the frontcourt as Harris and Kelly Olynyk combined to score 44 points. In the second, it was the Gonzaga backcourt that burned the Gaels. Gary Bell, Jr. and Kevin Pangos combined to have 38 points.
Gonzaga’s versatility has caused problems for everybody, not just Saint Mary’s.
Predicted winner: Gonzaga
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Waldow was asked about his reaction to Bennett’s reaction and he said, “I was kind of in a daze and everyone was texting me saying, ‘It’s so funny, his reaction.’ I ended up watching a YouTube video on it. It was pretty funny.”
Few commended Waldow for his toughness, hockey style.
“He showed some real toughness in wanted to stay in the game. I was very impressed with that,” Few said. “The fact that he came back and contributed in a big way... he’s a phenomenal offensive rebounder and a big body with great hands.”