Saint Mary's (Cal)-Gonzaga Preview
What likely separates Gonzaga from earning its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is a matchup with its West Coast Conference nemesis.
After paying the Gaels back for ending their 11-year dominance of WCC regular-season titles, the top-ranked Bulldogs will try to avenge last season's conference tournament defeat when the teams meet again in Las Vegas on Monday night.
Gonzaga (30-2) has already made history by earning its first No. 1 ranking and recording its first 30-win season. A win over Saint Mary's (27-5) could pave the way for another milestone.
There's some debate about whether the Bulldogs deserve a top seed in the NCAA tournament but a 14th consecutive win would seem to push them closer to making history. A loss could cost them a No. 1 seed.
These teams are meeting in the conference title game for the fifth straight time. Saint Mary's has won two of the past three tournament championships and edged the Bulldogs 78-74 in overtime last March.
"It's a great rivalry playing them," Gonzaga senior Elias Harris said. "It's a love/hate relationship, and that makes it a lot of fun to play them."
One piece of motivation for the Gaels is erasing any worries about the NCAA bubble.
They've helped themselves by winning six in a row, including a 74-66 victory over Missouri Valley champion Creighton on Feb. 23, and 19 of 21 with the lone two losses coming to Gonzaga.
"We're going to have to match the intensity of our opponent," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "There's a sense of desperation when you don't know if you're in the (NCAA) tournament."
Saint Mary's needed overtime to edge 18-loss San Diego 69-66 on Saturday and advance to the championship game.
Matthew Dellavedova, the Gaels' all-time leading scorer, made just two of 12 shots but hit a tying 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in regulation and finished with seven points. Sophomore forward Brad Waldow had a career-high 23 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks despite losing a tooth due to an inadvertent elbow in the second half.
Gonzaga, meanwhile, handled Loyola Marymount 66-48 in its first game as a top-ranked team, and Harris led the way with 21 points.
Harris had 22 points and 13 rebounds in last year's championship game and hit the tying 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation. The Gaels, though, had four players in double figures led by tournament MVP Dellavedova's 22 points.
The Bulldogs are likely happy this is probably the Australian guard's final game against them as he's averaging 21.3 points in his last seven matchups.
"It takes a team effort to stop a player like him," Harris said.
Gonzaga, though, brings a Wooden Award finalist and the WCC player of the year into this game, Kelly Olynyk. The junior forward, averaging a team-best 17.3 points to go with 7.0 rebounds, scored 31 against the Gaels in an 83-78 home win Jan. 10.
Gary Bell Jr. tied a career high with 20 points in a 77-60 win at Saint Mary's on Feb. 14.
Kevin Pangos has combined for 40 points and shot 57.1 percent in this season's two meetings, but missed 15 of 18 shots and was 1 of 10 from 3-point range in last year's tournament defeat.
"This is where we want to be," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "It's a familiar foe. We've seen them a lot. It's going to be about doing things a little better than we did in the first two times we've played them."