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My kind of town: Gonzaga looks to extend WCC dominance with pair of wins in Las Vegas

For two-plus decades, the West Coast Conference Tournament has mirrored the WCC regular season.

Gonzaga has ruled both, only slightly less so when it comes to the conference tournament.

The Zags have won 16 WCC Tournament titles dating back to 1999, when Gonzaga launched an improbable run to the Elite Eight and started the program’s soon-to-be 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Gonzaga has played in the WCC Tournament championship game the past 21 years. The Zags have won or shared 19 regular-season titles in that time span.

Gonzaga won’t know its opponent in Monday’s semifinals at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena until Saturday night. If the seeding holds up, No. 1 Gonzaga (29-2, 16-0 WCC) will face No. 4 San Francisco (21-9, 9-7) or No. 5 Loyola Marymount (20-10, 8-8). LMU beat the Dons 74-69 in San Francisco in the regular-season finale last Saturday.

While the top-ranked Zags usually get everybody’s best shot during the regular season, there’s even more motivation for opponents in the WCC Tournament.

“It’s a totally different feeling when you go down there, and a totally different environment,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It’s definitely Gonzaga-friendly, but the urgency all of those teams are playing with, in many cases their season is going to end, and obviously the dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament is on the line.

“It’s very important we go down there and play with a sense of urgency, too, and we play with a positive desperation defensively and offensively.”

Gonzaga is heavily favored, with a lineup that features WCC Player of the Year Rui Hachimura and fellow first-teamers Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr.

Gonzaga players Josh Perkins and Joel Ayayi, along with coach Mark Few, celebrate with the WCC championship trophy after defeating BYU, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga players Josh Perkins and Joel Ayayi, along with coach Mark Few, celebrate with the WCC championship trophy after defeating BYU, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The only certain route to the Big Dance for the nine teams not named Gonzaga is to win the WCC Tournament and claim an automatic berth. Second-seeded Saint Mary’s is in familiar territory, extending its annual March rite of residing on the NCAA bubble. The Gaels are listed in ESPN’s First Four Out.

The Gaels don’t have the sleek record of recent Saint Mary’s teams that were often passed over for at-large berths, but do carry a strong No. 38 NET rating, one of the selection committee’s primary evaluation tools.

The Gaels played a tougher nonconference schedule, but their résumé lacks eye-catching wins. Gonzaga routed Saint Mary’s by 48 in Spokane and by 14 last Saturday, capping a 16-0 run through the WCC.

San Francisco, No. 65 in the NET, was under consideration for an at-large berth early in the WCC season, but the Dons faded with a pair of three-game losing streaks.

Third-seeded BYU, No. 77 in the NET, lost twice to GU by a combined 64 points. Loyola Marymount reached the 20-win mark for just the second time since 1990.

Gonzaga pounded every WCC team by double digits, the closest contests coming against fifth-seeded San Diego (combined 28 points) and LMU (31). San Francisco led Gonzaga inside the 4-minute mark before the Zags closed with a 17-2 run.

The Zags avoided the roller coaster rides experienced by the nine other WCC teams.

“We’ve been pretty rock-solid all year,” Few said. “We haven’t had many games all year, or even spaces of games, 4 minutes, 8 minutes, 10 minutes, where we really weren’t dialed in. That’s why we’ve been able to win so many games so decidely.”

This will be the 11th WCC Tournament staged at the Orleans Arena, which typically is filled with at least 4,000 Zag fans. Gonzaga has won eight of the 10, with both losses coming to Saint Mary’s in the championship game. The Zags have defeated the Gaels in five title-game matchups and BYU in the other three, including a 74-54 decision last March behind tournament MVP Killian Tillie’s 22 points.

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