LAS VEGAS — The rivalry between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s has been a good one, almost every game going down to the wire.
That hasn’t been the case this season. The Bulldogs dominated the Gaels in three meetings, the latest one sending them to a familiar place: The West Coast Conference championship game.
David Stockton had 21 points, Sam Dower Jr. added 12 points and nine rebounds, and Gonzaga advanced to the WCC final for the 17th straight year with a 70-54 win over Saint Mary’s Monday night.
“It’s just one of those years,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Sometimes it’s cyclical in this conference, different teams stepping up, but this year they’ve had some tough bounces. But they’re still a tough out.”
Gonzaga (27-6) crushed Saint Mary’s in two meetings during the regular season behind its defense and did it again in the WCC semifinals, holding the Gaels (22-11) to 37 percent shooting.
Gary Bell Jr. added 14 points and Dower made all eight of his free throws after setting a WCC record by going 15-for-15 in the semifinals. Stockton also had six rebounds and four assists for Gonzaga, which will play for its fourth WCC tournament title in five years.
“It feels good,” said Stockton, a senior. “We want to go out on top.”
Saint Mary’s has struggled against Gonzaga’s defensive pressure all season and still had no answer for it in the postseason.
The Zags hounded Stephen Holt all over the floor, holding him to 3 of 9 shooting, and were good at the rim, contesting shots and making the Gaels uneasy with every trip to the basket.
Brad Waldow led Saint Mary’s with 14 points and Holt finished with 13.
“We played hard and at times I thought we played harder than them, but we didn’t play well enough to win,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “You have to play hard and play well to beat them.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have been familiar foes in the WCC tournament, meeting for the sixth straight season.
This one was a little different; they were playing in the semifinals instead of the championship game for the first time during that stretch.
Gonzaga entered the tournament with a somewhat-shaky NCAA tournament resume after late-season losses to BYU and San Diego. The Bulldogs won the WCC regular-season title for the 15th time in 17 seasons and ran over Saint Mary’s in the finale, 75-47 for the most lopsided game in the series since 2001.
But Gonzaga was far from stellar in its WCC tournament opener, trailing sub-.500 Santa Clara most of the way before pulling out a 77-75 victory on Stockton’s layup with 2 seconds left.
Saint Mary’s had it a little easier in its opener, rolling over Pepperdine 80-69 behind Waldow’s 21 points. But Gonzaga has been a tough matchup for the Gaels, particularly on the offensive end.
Saint Mary’s lost the first game to the Zags by 22 points and shot a combined 27 percent, including 6 of 30 on 3-pointers, in the two games combined.
The Gaels continued to struggle against Gonzaga’s quick-rotating defense, throwing the ball away and putting up difficult shots.
Saint Mary’s didn’t crack double figures until Waldow scored on a layup with 5:32 left in the first half and, even making a few shots down the stretch, went 9 for 23 from the floor to trail 31-20.
The Gaels made a brief run to open the second half, pulling within 33-27 on Kerry Carter’s 3-pointer.
Gonzaga clamped back down and, keyed by a 3-point by Stockton, pushed the lead back to 13. Saint Mary’s tried to mount a couple of runs, but had trouble finishing at the rim against Gonzaga’s big men to get much closer, headed toward what could be an NIT berth.
“We’re getting better and we should be playing after this,” Bennett said.