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Originally published March 8, 2010 at 9:54 PM | Page modified March 9, 2010 at 2:24 PM

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Bud Withers

Saint Mary's deals No. 18 Gonzaga stunning loss in WCC tournament title game

Runner-up finish likely means that Gonzaga will have to travel during opening round of NCAA tournament

Seattle Times colleges reporter

LAS VEGAS — Omar Samhan, wearing a necklace of basketball net, peered down at a stat sheet. It showed him with a mere nine points, his first game of the year out of double figures for Saint Mary's.

"I'll take it," he said happily, slouching back in a chair.

Samhan will take it, and Gonzaga took it — right in the solar plexus. In the men's final of the West Coast Conference tournament, Saint Mary's obliterated the Zags, 81-62, in a game that alleviated all the Gaels' apprehensions of the past year while seeming to expose Gonzaga's warts.

It was the worst loss for Gonzaga in the tournament since a 121-84 defeat to Loyola Marymount on March 3, 1990 — just a day before the Lions' Hank Gathers died on the floor of a heart condition.

So get out your suitcases, fellas. Saint Mary's, after squirming through Selection Sunday fruitlessly last year following an injury to guard Patty Mills, now punches a pass to the big dance.

"Yeah, justice," said coach Randy Bennett. "Justice that we took in our hands."

Meanwhile, the Zags almost certainly will be on a plane, leaving themselves almost no chance of playing at Spokane Arena. They were thought to have the edge on an NCAA placement there, but now, probably in the range of a No. 6 seed, likely will be traveling.

That didn't seem to be on the minds of the Zags, who were flummoxed by a team that needed it more, wanted it more and executed like there was no tomorrow.

"More than anything else in my life," said Samhan, a four-year villain to Gonzaga fans, to the question of how badly he wanted to beat the Zags. "I said in an interview that it was not only the biggest game of my career, but it will define my career at Saint Mary's."

The day began badly for Gonzaga (26-6), when a valuable reserve, freshman Manny Arop, was found to have a broken foot from the LMU semifinal victory, and he'll be out for the year.

While the Zags corralled Samhan successfully, Demetri Goodson couldn't contain Saint Mary's guard Mickey McConnell, who flicked threes and drove for baskets to tie a career-high with 26 points and win tournament MVP honors.

At the same time, the Gaels' 6-11 Aussie forward, Ben Allen, stepped away from the basket. When he wasn't draining 4 of 6 threes for 20 points (and nine rebounds), he was passing to the Saint Mary's guards to vacated spots inside.

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In a game of controlled tempo, Saint Mary's (26-5) still found a way to score 51 second-half points in a remarkable display of offensive efficiency, shooting 68 percent after the break. The Gaels turned the ball over only eight times all night, and simply wore on Gonzaga with the ball in their hands.

"We made them guard us," said Bennett.

"Time of possession was key," said Zags coach Mark Few. "They made us defend and made us defend, and we were coming down and almost attacking on the first side every time. They had our guys a little bit frustrated. And they did a phenomenal job of stepping up and making shots."

Gonzaga had a one-point lead, twice. That was it, early in the second half. When St. Mary's assumed control, the Zags, winners of this tournament nine of the previous 11 years, seemed to try to get it all back, everything, on one possession.

In the first two meetings, Saint Mary's couldn't handle Zags freshman Elias Harris, who totaled 50 points. The Gaels determined that they needed to have him shoot over them rather than hurt them off the dribble with his athleticism, and Harris was a non-factor, shooting 3 of 13 for eight points.

The Gaels offed the Zags with a 23-7 run that ballooned a three-point lead to 73-54 with three minutes left. The Saint Mary's crowd, dwarfed by a legion of Gonzaga fans, chanted, "We can't hear you."

With a Gonzaga victory, Sunday was going to be suspenseful for both the Zags and Gaels — for the where and whether. Now, not so much. Rarely has the same destination, the NCAA tournament, felt so different for two teams.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Hed here
Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have played in the WCC tournament championship four times, each time with Gonzaga as the No. 1 seed, Saint Mary's No. 2. The Zags won the first three meetings by an average of 17 points.
Year Result
2010 Saint Mary's 81, Gonzaga 62
2009 Gonzaga 83, Saint Mary's 58
2005 Gonzaga 80, Saint Mary's 67
2004 Gonzaga 84, Saint Mary's 71

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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