Steven Gray banged his shooting elbow on the Orleans Arena court hard enough to make the Gonzaga guard’s coach think it was broken. A little later, two of his fingernails were bent back grotesquely.
"That’s why he was constantly bleeding tonight," coach Mark Few said with admiration. Gray simply gritted his teeth and got the No. 18 Zags back to their usual spot in the West Coast Conference tournament final with a 77-62 victory over Loyola Marymount on Sunday night.
Gray had 18 points, six rebounds and seven assists while playing through some miserable pain for the Zags, who have won nine of the last 11 West Coast tournament titles. He hopes he’ll be repaired by the time Gonzaga plays in Monday night’s title game against Portland or Saint Mary’s.
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"We try to come out and follow the game plan, play hard," Gray said. "It makes the game simple. If we keep things simple, other things will take care of themselves."
With their fifth straight victory since losing a regular-season game to Loyola Marymount on Feb. 18, the Zags are in their 13th straight conference tournament title game. This Vegas trip is among the most rewarding, with just one returning starter and a wealth of untested talent that came together splendidly this season.
"We come into this every year and want to win it," said Matt Bouldin, the conference player of the year. "We want to be playing our best game going into the NCAA tournament. Winning this thing is everything."
Elias Harris scored 16 points and Bouldin scored 10 of his 12 points after halftime for the Zags (26-5), whose big early lead dwindled to six points in the final minutes before Bol Kong and Robert Sacre made decisive baskets. Bouldin added two layups and two free throws in the final 4:44 for Gonzaga, which finished on a 16-5 run.
Gonzaga had played just one game in the past seven days after wrapping up its conference schedule. The Zags earned a double bye into the semifinals by winning their 10th consecutive regular-season title last month — and a break isn’t always a great thing for a team’s tournament momentum.
"Sometimes getting a game under your belt and getting the nerves out of the way can help you," Few said. "We worked them pretty hard this week, didn’t let up."
Neither did Loyola Marymount, which was just a couple of baskets away from a serious threat in the second half.
Drew Viney had 15 points and eight rebounds for the Lions (18-15), who put another scare into the Zags to cap their comeback from a three-win season in 2008-09.
"We’ve been progressing this whole time, and we’re still getting better," Viney said. "We’re really hoping we get a bid into some kind of tournament."
Vernon Teel scored 14 points and Kevin Young added 12 before fouling out for Loyola Marymount, which beat Pepperdine and San Francisco over the past two days to reach the semifinals. After such a strong finish, they’re quietly confident of an invitation to a lower-tier postseason tournament later this month.
"I just hope we get to play somewhere, someplace, any place," coach Max Good said. "We’ll go to the Dust Bowl if we get invited."
Gonzaga played in front of its usual traveling crew of several thousand Spokane fans spending a long weekend in Vegas cheering on the tournament’s top-seeded teams in both the men’s and women’s brackets.
The Lions made five turnovers and got off just one shot in the first 3:28 before finally getting their first basket, and Gonzaga smoothly jumped to a 16-point halftime lead with 57-percent shooting and 14 points by Gray.
Yet Loyola Marymount kept it close with outstanding free-throw shooting while Gonzaga hovered around 50 percent. Young drove and hit a layup with 8 minutes left to trim the Zags’ lead to 58-51. Young’s large Afro wobbled while he waved his arms to set off a wild celebration in the small section of Lions fans, where several fans wore Hank Gathers’ No. 44 jersey three days after the 20th anniversary of his death during a game.
The Lions trimmed Gonzaga’s lead to 61-55 on Young’s layup with 7:14 left before the defending champions recovered with Sacre’s four points and Kong’s 3-pointer with 5:44 to play.