Gonzaga, Saint Mary's make for familiar West Coast Conference title game
Conference rivals meet for 12th time in past four years, including every WCC title game since 2008.
Seattle Times colleges reporter
LAS VEGAS — Officially, the pressure is off. Saint Mary's and Gonzaga play their West Coast Conference basketball tournament final Monday night simply for bragging rights. The oppressive burden has been shed.
"I was under the gun today," Zags coach Mark Few confessed Saturday night, "because the wave pool at the Mandalay Bay opens on Monday. I was getting a lot of heat from my kids to get it done."
A loss to Brigham Young would have meant an early exit. Instead, the four Few moppets will be splashing while their father angles for an edge against the Gaels.
The stakes are only visceral, not tangible. Both teams will be in the NCAA tournament, it's just a question of how high and where. The guess here is that Gonzaga rates in the neighborhood of a No. 6 seed right now, which could rise or fall by one. Saint Mary's is probably about two seeds down.
Somebody gets another Top-50 RPI win, which is nice, but not exactly a no-tomorrow proposition.
Sunday, that didn't seem to dissuade Zags center Robert Sacre from billing the game as if he was at a prizefight weigh-in.
"Both teams and fans hate each other," he said. "I think we have this mutual hate when it comes to a basketball court. I don't think there's anything like it in the country."
Few did his best to disagree with the hate theme, but not before Sacre added another advisory.
"We don't want them to get the championship," he said. "We're Gonzaga. That's how we think. I'm not trying to be cocky."
It was Saint Mary's that spirited away the regular-season title, after Gonzaga's run of 11 straight. The Gaels have never accomplished the quinella of an accompanying tournament championship in one season.
It isn't as though both teams will need to be up in the wee hours eyeballing video. This will be the 12th time they've met in the past four seasons, three times each year. Nobody else in the WCC has been in the title game since 2008.
"We know each other pretty well," said Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett in an understatement.
It's only urban myth that the two WCC powers play cliffhangers every time out. To the contrary, they have something of a history of beating each other's brains in, often within a season. Among those last 11 meetings are five games of double-digit waxings, including two this year — Saint Mary's by 21 in January and Gonzaga by 14 on Feb. 9.
The Saint Mary's press notes point out that the teams have halved the past six meetings. Gonzaga would prefer to extend the conversation and say that in the past dozen games, Gonzaga is 9-3. You say potato ...
"I can't say I hate them," said Rob Jones, the sturdy Saint Mary's forward. "But on the court, I'm a good competitor. I like to win, I don't like losing."
It was totally in keeping with their polar approaches that Sunday, Saint Mary's didn't bring Matthew Dellavedova to its brief news conference, opting for Jones and sophomore guard Jorden Page. All Dellavedova is, is WCC player of the year, the team's leading scorer and all-time assist man.
Meanwhile, along with Sacre, the Zags brought freshman guard Kevin Pangos, who is all the rage after riddling BYU for 30 points.
Somehow, Dellavedova's name didn't come up until the last question of Saint Mary's session, when he is probably the key to Monday night's game. He's expert at running the Gaels' offense off high ball screens, scoring or hitting shooters who spread the floor.
"I don't know if we've had a better leader," said Bennett.
Said Few, "Dellavedova just knows how to play."
Pangos, too. He went for 27 against Saint Mary's when Gonzaga won in February, hitting on 5 of 6 threes, and he was even better in the semifinal against Brigham Young.
The Zags' offense has a way of occasionally leaking oil, and Pangos' offense has been a welcome remedy. Just when it seemed as though he could be hitting a freshman wall in January, he has averaged 16.9 points in the past eight games.
"He's an elite shooter," said Bennett. "Every way you can get a shot, he knows how to get it.
"But he's more than that. I think he's become the head of the monster up there, the one that makes them go."
Thanks to BYU's inclusion in the WCC, Sunday marked the first day off for the league tournament.
"It gives you a chance to prepare," said Bennett. "It makes for a better game. The players are more fresh."
Not so for the story line, an old one in the WCC.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
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