Since Randy Bennett took over at St. Mary’s back in 2001, his program’s yearly matchups with Gonzaga have been among the best not only in the West Coast Conference, but on the entire west coast.
Late Thursday night, the two teams delivered yet another masterpiece.
St. Mary’s overcame a 15-point second-half deficit to defeat the Zags 70-67 in a game that will be remembered in Moraga for the forseeable future, for both the late comeback and the thrilling conclusion.
With 13 minutes left, the Bulldogs led 50-35 and looked to be in full control. Then, after a back-breaking Kyle Dranginis 3-pointer with seven minutes to go, the Zags led by 10. That’s when the hyper-efficient St. Mary’s offense took over. The Gaels scored on six of their next seven possessions to take the lead with a 14-3 run. The Bulldogs’ defense at that point shored itself up, and they were able to tie things at 67 with 23 seconds left. That’s when the madness took over.
Instead of holding for the last shot, Joe Rahon went to work with 10 seconds left and was “fouled” by Domantas Sabonis. I put fouled in quotation marks becuase it didn’t exactly look like Sabonis did much to earn the call. Rahon made one of two to give St. Mary’s the lead. But then he made the nearly fatal mistake of fouling Eric McClellan intentionally with a one-point lead to send the Zags to the line for a one-and-one.
“Yeah, I had a brain fart,” Rahon said perfectly in a televised interview after the game.
But McClellan missed the front-end, and Evan Fitzner stepped to the line and knocked down a pair of free throws. Gonzaga’s last-second heave was off the mark and the Gaels had their first win against the Zags in eight tries.
That pushes St. Mary’s record to 16-2 on the season, with victories over BYU, Stanford and now Gonzaga. Their 7-1 West Coast Conference record puts them in sole control of the league. And, given where the Gaels were coming into the season, that’s a totally shocking result. This is a team that was picked by the coaches and media to finish fourth in the league after losing all five of its starters from last season. They’re the 16th-youngest team in America. For them to have acclimated themselves this quickly to Bennett’s system is thoroughly remarkable, and it wouldn’t be completely out of the question for them to be ranked next week.
On the other side, the margin of error is getting smaller by the day for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are sitting at 14-5 with really only one quality win against a genuine NCAA Tournament team (Connecticut). This group is really up against it, and at this point might need to beat both SMU and St. Mary’s in February to put themselves in contention for an at-large bid.
And really, they have no one to blame but themselves. Thursday’s loss was their third this season after holding a double-digit lead in the second half. The guards just haven’t quite come all the way along in the way of efficiency and turnovers. This is soul-searching time for coach Mark Few and company. With Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer and the athletic guards at their disposal, this is the most talented team in the league. They need to start playing like it, or they risk missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Few era.