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Saint Mary’s ends Gonzaga’s monopoly of WCC Tournament titles

Zags had won four straight and 10 of last 11 tournaments

By MARK ANDERSON, AP Sports Writer
Published: March 12, 2024, 8:54pm
2 Photos
Saint Mary's forward Mason Forbes (25) and Gonzaga guard Ryan Nembhard (0) go after the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the West Coast Conference men's tournament Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Las Vegas.
Saint Mary's forward Mason Forbes (25) and Gonzaga guard Ryan Nembhard (0) go after the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the West Coast Conference men's tournament Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ian Maule) Photo Gallery

LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga’s stranglehold on the West Coast Conference Tournament had been especially frustrating for Saint Mary’s, the Gaels often seeing their nemesis celebrate at their expense.

Not Tuesday night.

No. 21 Saint Mary’s led the WCC championship game nearly the entire way to beat No. 17 Gonzaga 69-60 behind Aidan Mahaney’s 23 points and Mitchell Saxen’s 19 points and 15 rebounds.

Gonzaga (25-7) had won four WCC championships in a row and 10 of 11, with Saint Mary’s in 2019 the one year the Bulldogs didn’t claim the trophy. The Gaels earned the conference’s automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, but both sides were certain to make the 68-team field even before tipoff.

“We beat a good team, a program we’ve got a ton of respect for,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “They’ve helped us become the program that we are because we were punching up there for a long time and trying to do what they were doing and be as good as they were.”

The sharp-shooting Mahaney was a major reason the Gaels (26-7) prevailed. He made 9 of 15 shots, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Also for Saint Mary’s, Saxen produced a double-double despite battling foul trouble.

Saxen said he maintained his aggressiveness by “playing to the emotions of the game. It’s hard to tone it down in the championship game like that. Got in foul trouble. I should’ve been smart early and stayed down on my feet on a couple of plays.”

WCC player of the year Augustas Marciulionis scored 13 points and was named tournament most outstanding player.

Anton Watson led the Zags with 18 points. Ryan Nembhard finished with 13 points and 11 assists, and Graham Ike had 10 points even though he played only 20 minutes because of foul trouble.

“We’ve got a lot to work on on this loss,” Watson said. “We’re looking forward to the tournament and trying to make some noise there. We can’t hang our heads on this.”

The game was close throughout — Saint Mary’s largest lead was 11 points — but the Gaels managed to stay in front almost the entire way. Gonzaga used an eight-point run to finally take the lead with 7:41 left, but that advantage lasted only 22 seconds and was answered by a seven-point spurt by the Gaels.

Both teams came in surging. Saint Mary’s now has won 23 of 25 games, and the Gaels ended Gonzaga’s nine-game winning streak. All this after the Gaels began the season 3-5.

“It wasn’t just one moment,” Mahaney said of the turnaround. “We just kept chipping and chipping and chipping and chipping until eventually we broke through. It’s not easy. It’s a credit to everyone just believing.”

The Gaels also, at least briefly, ended the Bulldogs’ domination of this series. Gonzaga had won 26 of the past 32 meetings, and had been the Gaels’ nemesis in WCC championship games in winning three of the previous four against Saint Mary’s.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are used to rolling into the NCAA Tournament off a WCC Tournament championship, but coach Mark Few said he didn’t think this loss would have any carry-over effect. The Zags have been good against just about any team not named Saint Mary’s, which is responsible for their two most recent losses. Whether Gonzaga can extend its streak of making the Sweet 16 to nine years largely will depend on what kind of matchups it draws.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels set the defensive tone by stealing the ball four times before the first media timeout. By the end of the game, they had forced Gonzaga into 13 turnovers to four for Saint Mary’s. The Gaels also outrebounded Gonzaga 39-22, including 27-17 on the defensive end.

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SAINT MARY’S 69, GONZAGA 60

GONZAGA (25-7) — Gregg 3-4 2-3 9, Ike 5-12 0-1 10, Watson 6-14 6-8 18, Hickman 3-8 0-0 6, Nembhard 6-14 0-0 13, Stromer 0-0 0-0 0, Huff 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 24-54 10-14 60.

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SAINT MARY’S (26-7) — Forbes 3-3 2-4 8, Saxen 6-15 7-12 19, Mahaney 9-15 0-0 23, Marciulionis 5-11 2-2 13, Ducas 1-3 4-4 6, Barrett 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 24-51 15-22 69.

Halftime—Saint Mary’s 31-27. 3-Point Goals—Gonzaga 2-11 (Gregg 1-2, Nembhard 1-3, Huff 0-1, Watson 0-2, Hickman 0-3), Saint Mary’s 6-15 (Mahaney 5-7, Marciulionis 1-3, Ducas 0-2, Barrett 0-3). Rebounds—Gonzaga 20 (Watson 7), Saint Mary’s 37 (Saxen 15). Assists—Gonzaga 17 (Nembhard 11), Saint Mary’s 15 (Marciulionis 8). Total Fouls—Gonzaga 18, Saint Mary’s 14.

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