LAS VEGAS -- — Chet Holmgren spent most of his night frustrated as he got banged around and shots clanged away. Drew Timme, except for a spurt early in the second half, found little room to pull off his variety of drop steps and up-and-unders.
Gonzaga still found a way to pick apart one of the nation's toughest defenses and win another West Coast Conference title.
These Zags are deep, dangerous and may be poised for another extended March run.
“Their offense is as good as any in the country,” Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. “There's a lot of things you have to do right to have a chance and we did that for a while, but you have to do it for 40 minutes."
Gonzaga (26-3) spent a good portion of its 25th straight WCC title game trying to shake the gritty Gaels. The Zags had a hard time getting out in transition, had to work through multiple options to get decent looks and found passing lanes clogged with Gaels.
None of it slowed them down.
Gonzaga shot 58% and hit nine straight shots during a stretch in the second half to pull away after Saint Mary's had cut the lead to two. Nembhard and Bolton led the way, combining for 17 straight points to all but lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the Zags.
“We had to dig very, very deep,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We called on everybody and everybody delivered. That's what makes it so special.”
The Gaels (25-7) managed to slow the game's pace to its liking, preventing the Zags from getting out in transition for easy baskets. Gonzaga still found a way to outscore Saint Mary's, making 16 of 23 shots in the second half to win its 20th WCC tournament title.
“It was a closer game than the difference,” Bennett said. “I didn't think we played bad. They're good and we didn't defend well enough. You can't do that against them.”
The Zags and Gaels have turned the WCC tournament into a running off-Strip show since it moved to Las Vegas in 2009. The teams have met nine times in the title game at Orleans Arena and one or the other has won the championship every year. The Zags have 10 titles over the 13-year run, the Gaels three (the last in 2019).
The rivals split during the regular season: Gonzaga ran roughshod over Saint Mary's in Spokane, Washington, and the Gaels bullied the Zags for a 10-point win in Moraga, California.
The go-round with a title on the line started as a defensive slog, both teams putting up difficult shots and making sloppy mistakes against the pressure. But Gonzaga revved up its smooth-moving machine midway through the first half, going on a 15-4 run to go up 29-18.
The Gaels made a short push, but the Zags pushed back for a 38-28 halftime lead. And they did it with Timme and Holmgren combining for four points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Saint Mary's bogged the game down again to start the second half, turning it into a half-court duel. The Gaels won the efficiency battle, methodically working for good shots to cut Gonzaga's lead to 52-50 midway through.
Gonzaga found the right gear again after that, hitting nine straight shots to push the lead to 71-59. Nembhard had 10 points and Bolton seven during the run.
Saint Mary's had no answer this time.
“Rasir started it off and shots opened up for us down the stretch,” said Nembhard, who also had seven assists and two steals. "We knew guys had confidence in us to take them and we have confidence in ourselves."
Saint Mary's: Played at the pace it wanted to and shot the ball decently, yet couldn't keep up with the Zags. A disappointing loss, but the Gaels should be a lock to make the NCAA Tournament after missing the bracket last season.
Gonzaga: Had to grind it out at times, but still shot 58% and went 8 for 16 from 3. The Zags also showed off their depth, getting 53 combined points from Nembhard, Bolton and Julian Strawther.
Saint Mary's: Is headed to the NCAA Tournament, likely as a middle seed.
Gonzaga: Should get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, possibly No. 1 overall.