LAS VEGAS — For the first time in school history, Gonzaga stepped on the floor as the top-ranked team in the country.
Thanks to a second-half surge Saturday night in the semifinals of the West Coast conference tournament, it’ll step on the floor Monday night in the championship game of the event as the nation’s No. 1 team for a second straight week.
Elias Harris had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 66-48.
Bidding for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs (30-2) advanced to play for the league championship against the winner of Saturday’s late semifinal between Saint Mary’s and San Diego.
Challenged in the first half by a team that went 1-15 in WCC play this season, Gonzaga turned up the defensive intensity and opened the second half on a 19-5 run to seize momentum.
Though it needed a last-second basket by Sam Dower to take a 27-26 lead into halftime, Gonzaga outscored the Lions 39-22 in the second half.
Kevin Pangos added 14 points and Kelly Olynyk had eight points and eight rebounds for the Zags.
Anthony Ireland led Loyola Marymount (11-23) with 19 points.
“LMU is a bunch of fighters,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They are tough and reflect the personality of their coach. I thought we played excellent defense all night, especially in the second half. We finally got our offense going in the second half.”
After shooting 40 percent (8 of 20) from the field in the first half, including 4 of 10 from beyond the arc, the Lions shot a dismal 7 of 29 (24.1 percent) from the field in the second. LMU was an abysmal 1 of 10 from 3-point range.
Conversely, the Zags turned it around after a horrendous first half — during which they went 9 of 24 from the field and 1 of 7 on 3s — and was a blistering 11 of 22 from the floor, including 4 of 7 from long range.
“We played with more emotion in the second half,” Harris said. “We came out flat in the beginning and knew we that we had to change that.”
The Lions forced 45 turnovers — and committed only 32 — in their first three games of the tournament, but last night came up against a Gonzaga team much more disciplined than their previous foes, and bit more tenacious on defense. And while LMU committed 16 miscues, compared to Gonzaga’s 13, the Bulldogs outscored the Lions 19-6 off turnovers.
Gonzaga also outrebounded the Lions 38-31, while outscoring them in the paint 28-12.
“I have tremendous respect for coach Few and the Gonzaga team,” Loyola coach Max Good said. “They are very talented. They are well coached and play with a lot of class. Our lack of size hurt us against a team with the big men of Gonzaga. We had to hustle and scrap, which we did, but in the end it just wasn’t enough.”
Much of the Zags’ domination came in the second half, though, as LMU refused to go away over the first 20 minutes. The Lions held Gonzaga scoreless early on, for a little more than three minutes, while going on a 9-0 run to take a 14-9 lead. The Bulldogs returned the favor by going on a 7-0 run, while holding Loyola scoreless for a bit less than three minutes, to take a 16-14 lead.
From there the two continued to play back and forth while neither built a margin bigger than two points, with the lead changing hands seven times over the final 4:16 of the half.
The ninth-seeded Lions, who posted one win in the first two months of the calendar year, tripled that figure in the WCC tournament with three straight wins to get to the semifinals.
LMU knocked off No. 8 Portland 65-54 on Wednesday to wedge its way into the bracket. The Lions upset No. 5 San Francisco 61-60 in overtime on Thursday then stunned fourth-seeded Santa Clara 60-58 on Friday.
Harris said the WCC tournament was “great preparation” for the NCAA championship games, saying “it’s getting us well-prepared for the more competitive challenge.”
The Bulldogs, who earned the WCC’s top seed for the 13th time, were the first team to go 16-0 in the league in the two years of the 16-game format. It was their fourth undefeated West Coast campaign, also going unbeaten in 2004, 2006 and 2009, when the conference played a 14-game schedule, prior to BYU joining the conference.
“Over this great run with great players (a No. 1 national ranking and a 30-win season) are things that we have not been able to accomplish,” Few said. “They are both special because it is a culmination of an entire year of work, not just a week or two of being hot.”