Twice can be a coincidence. Three times is a trend.
Top-seeded Gonzaga proved it is simply better than Saint Mary’s this season with a 70-54 victory in the first semifinal of the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena on Monday night.
The Bulldogs advanced to their 17th straight tournament championship game, where they will play second-seeded Brigham Young (23-10), a 79-77 winner in overtime over third-seeded San Francisco (21-11) in the late semifinal.
It was the third one-sided victory for Gonzaga (27-6) over the Gaels this season.
“We came a little closer this time. We played hard.,” Saint Mary’s (22-11) coach Randy Bennett said. “We just didn’t play hard or well enough when we played them this year to beat them.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said the Gaels, who his team had played against in five straight championship games before this season, are better than they showed.
“I think they just had some tough bounces this year. They’re still a very, very tough out,” Few said. “We’ve played some really good games against them, especially the first two times. They’re right there. They just lost some tough games in the middle of the conference there that hurt them a little bit or else I think they’re certainly physical enough that, had they won those games, I think they’d have been looking at an NCAA bid.”
Instead Saint Mary’s entered this week as the No. 4 seed and will likely be headed to the NIT.
Their exit from the tournament, and struggles against Gonzaga this season, had a lot to do with the defense the Bulldogs played on Stephen Holt.
The all-conference point guard for Saint Mary’s had made just 2 of 11 shots in the first two meetings and scored a total of 19 points. Holt, who averages 15 points per game, had nine points in a 73-51 loss at Gonzaga in January, then 10 points and no made field goals in a 75-47 home drubbing last week.
He was held in check once again Monday night.
Holt was 1-for-3 from the field for two points in the first half, with his lone make coming on a defensive breakdown on an inbounds play under the basket.
Holt did finish with 13 points, but nine came in the final three minutes of desperation time. He made just 3 of 9 shots from the field. He was primarily guarded by Gary Bell Jr., who had plenty of help.
“That’s exactly what they do. They make it hard for Holt. They basically triple-team him and, when that happens, you have to have guys step up and make shots. We never could solve that this year,” Bennett said. “They’re just good defensively. They’re the best team in our league defensively. they definitely give us problems. They gave us problems last year, too.”
Holt was frsutrated with the Gaels’ offensive performance.
“They just want to make it difficult when I have the ball,” he said. “When I would penetrate, all the defense would collapse. I would try to kick out to shooters, but we only shot 37 percent from the game and 25 (percent) from 3. That’s just not going to get it done.”
While their defensive gameplan was effective, the one employed by Saint Mary’s appeared to backfire.
The Gaels were concerned about Gonzaga’s front line getting easy baskets and sent a lot of help from the perimeter. That left Bulldogs guard David Stockton open too often on the perimeter and he took advantage.
The senior, who averages 7.2 points per game, erupted for 16 of his 21 points in the second half to help the Bulldogs pull away.
The son of basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton continued his great tournament, which began with a game-winning layup in the quarterfinal game against Santa Clara on Saturday.
“David stepped up big time,” Few said.
Bell added 14 points and Dower added 12, making all eight of his free-throw attempts to extend his streak to a tournament-record 23 attempts without a miss.
All will be counted on again tonight for the Bulldogs in the 6 p.m. championship game against the Cougars.
Tyler Haws scored eight of his game-high 24 points in overtime to lead BYU. He made all six free-throw attempts in the extra session and went 14 of 14 from the line in the game.
Kyle Collinsworth added 18 points and 12 rebounds and the Cougars survived a corner jumper from Avry Holmes at the end of overtime.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.