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Originally published March 7, 2011 at 8:55 PM | Page modified March 7, 2011 at 10:40 PM

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Zags going dancing for 13th straight year

Twenty seconds remained in the West Coast Conference basketball final, and finally, all the travail of its often-messy season was behind Gonzaga.

Times college basketball reporter

LAS VEGAS — Twenty seconds remained in the West Coast Conference basketball final, and finally, all the travail of its often-messy season was behind Gonzaga.

Even as he held the ball, guard Marquise Carter stood near midcourt and waved an arm, exhorting the crowd. Near him, Steven Gray bounced exultantly.

On the bench, coach Mark Few grabbed David Stockton and put him in a headlock, just before Few leaped into the arms of Elias Harris.

This was no time to be cool, just very happy. The Zags left nothing to chance with the NCAA selection committee, muscling past Saint Mary's, 75-63 Monday night, to punch their ticket to the dance for a 13th straight year.

All their disparate parts, the ones that at times this season seemed dysfunctional, worked themselves out and Gonzaga (24-9) did just enough to thwart the gutsy Gaels in their third meeting of the season.

"It's an unbelievable feeling, even after all the times we've done it," said Few. "I just got done telling them, I haven't been more proud of a group of guys, to go from where we were (4-5 in mid-December) to where we are now. It's taught me a lot about the resilience of kids.

"Day by day, they didn't deal with all the noise. They just played and got better."

If there's any justice, this will be a two-bid league, not just one. But Saint Mary's (24-8) has to sweat out the week's events elsewhere and hope for grace from the committee.

"It is what it is," sighed SMC coach Randy Bennett. "I can't control it. I have no idea what they look for."

As they have all season long, the teams went after each other fiercely. Not until 5:27 remained did anybody so much as wedge out an eight-point lead.

Saint Mary's had to neutralize their disadvantage up front; the Zags had to keep from getting killed by the savvy Gaels guards. Ultimately, in a guards' kind of game, the Zags got more from their big guys and survived 45 points combined from Mickey McConnell and Matt Dellavedova.

Rob Jones' baseline jumper tied it for the eighth time at 53, when finally Gonzaga took the game by the throat. Gray found Sam Dower down low for the go-ahead hoop. Then, with 6:37 to go, Stockton floated out on top and buried one of those from-the-right-shoulder threes, making it a five-point lead.

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Clint Steindl's trey got Saint Mary's back within 61-58, but Harris made an athletic, tough tip of Robert Sacre's miss, and the Zags eased home at the free-throw line while the Gaels' offense (32 percent in the second half) went dry.

It was a bruising game between the unquestioned top dogs in the league. Gray took a first-half fall and had to leave the gym and get four stitches over the eye, and later Dower got poked in the eye in a scrum on the floor and didn't return.

Meanwhile, Jones, the Gaels' burly forward, was assessed a blocking foul with 10:31 left in the first half and Saint Mary's up five, and when he barked at an official, he drew a technical. He eventually fouled out.

"Pretty tough — second and third foul," said Bennett. "We've got to do a better job of keeping our composure."

Carter was named MVP in a competitive vote, joined by Gray on the all-tournament team. You could have made a case for the irrepressible Stockton, who made a passel of big plays in two nights.

So the streak goes on, bettered currently only by Kansas, Duke and Michigan State.

"It's a great feeling, knowing that come Sunday, you're not going to be sitting there sweating," said Gray, the senior from Bainbridge. "I can't imagine what that feeling would be, on a day that in my last three years has been more of a celebration than anything."

And the Zags know celebrations. Several minutes after the final horn, they paraded up into the GU student section and whooped it up with classmates.

"It was emotional," said Ray Giacoletti, the assistant coach. "My first year here (2008), it was more workmanlike."

For the Zags, it came down to this: The most arduous march to the tournament might have been the most satisfying one.

GONZAGA (24-9) — Sacre 2-7 8-10 12, Carter 4-10 3-3 11, Goodson 2-3 0-0 5, Harris 3-8 2-2 9, Gray 4-8 6-7 15, Stockton 3-5 0-0 7, Olynyk 1-1 0-0 2, Hart 1-1 2-2 4, Dower 5-8 0-2 10. Totals 25-51 21-26 75.

SAINT MARY'S (24-8) — Dellavedova 8-17 2-2 21, Holt 2-6 0-0 6, Jones 3-7 0-2 6, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, McConnell 5-12 13-15 24, Young 1-4 1-2 3, Steindl 1-2 0-0 3, Harris 0-0 0-0 0, Walker II 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 16-21 63.

Halftime — Gonzaga 39-34. Three-point goals — Gonzaga 4-9 (Harris 1-1, Goodson 1-1, Stockton 1-2, Gray 1-3, Carter 0-2), Saint Mary's 7-15 (Dellavedova 3-6, Holt 2-4, Steindl 1-2, McConnell 1-3). Fouled out — Jones, Young. Rebounds — Gonzaga 35 (Sacre 8), Saint Mary's 29 (Jones 9). Assists — Gonzaga 9 (Gray, Stockton 3), Saint Mary's 7 (Dellavedova, McConnell 3). Total fouls — Gonzaga 19, Saint Mary's 23. Technical — Jones. A — 7,186.

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