MORAGA, Calif. -- It was a close call, but Gonzaga’s streak lives to see another day.
The Zags prevented Saint Mary’s from stopping their dynastic stretch of 10 straight WCC regular-season titles, and in the process, they prevented their rival from capturing its first in 22 years after an 89-85 overtime win at McKeon Pavilion on Thursday night.
Gonzaga pulled itself into a first-place tie in the league with one game left and then talked about how meaningful it was to win this one.
“We pride ourselves on winning league championships,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That’s our motivation. We win league championships and go to the NCAA tournament.”
Gonzaga freshman Sam Dower scored 21 points off the bench, including four clutch free throws in overtime to seal the win, and Elias Harris added 18 points and six rebounds. The Zags blew a 10-point second-half lead, but said they prevailed because of their defense.
McConnell, who had burned the Zags with the game-winning leaner in Spokane on Jan. 27, saw a 3-pointer at the buzzer of regulation rim out and then the potential go-ahead layup draw back iron with 11.9 seconds left.
“Nine times out of 10, you’re probably going to make it,” McConnell said of his driving attempt.
Afterward, the Zags had no problem talking about how they had circled this date on the calendar following the home loss to the Gaels, which left them three games behind Saint Mary's -- a deficit that is no more.
“We’re going to beat ‘em down there,” Sacre said of the team‘s thinking. “We wanted to redeem ourselves."
Just how close was the game on Thursday? The two teams were tied at halftime, after the end of regulation, and went back and forth into the final minute of overtime.
A foul called on McConnell going for the strip, and Dower’s resulting two free throws with 19.9 seconds left, gave Gonzaga the lead. After McConnell missed at the other end, Sacre came through with two free throws of his own.
The Zags fouled Stephen Holt to prevent the Gaels from attempting a potential game-tying 3-pointer since they shot 43.5 percent from beyond the arc for the game. Holt made one of two, and Dower was able to close it out by sinking two more.
Not only did Saint Mary’s not get to celebrate a league title at home, but now the Gaels are in serious jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament if they don’t win the WCC tournament. McConnell said the team would take on that mindset, and it’s not just because Saint Mary’s traditionally takes that approach as a mid-major.
“Losing three in a row doesn’t help at this point in the season,” said McConnell, who finished with 15 points and nine assists.
The Gaels were set to clinch at least a share of the title at San Diego on Feb. 16, but that bad loss has snowballed into three losses in the past nine days, wrecking what had been a fine résumé for the NCAA selection committee to review.
Still, each team will receive byes into the WCC semifinals and will need to win just once to meet for the rubber match in Las Vegas on March 7. No one who witnessed this classic on Thursday would wish for anything else.
“We might see them in the tournament,” Sacre said.
But after the Gonzaga win, it’s the Zags’ own NCAA tourney credentials that got a major boost, and they’re very much alive for at-large consideration after winning seven of their past eight games.
The Zags are 20-9 after playing a difficult nonconference schedule, and a win against Saint Mary’s will be looked upon favorably.
"We just persevered," Sacre said. "It was just a dogfight."