Sunday, March 7, 2010

Gonzaga in familiar territory for Las Vegas championship game

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 11:27 p.m.

As the clock ticked down on Sunday’s West Coast Conference semifinal matchup between Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga, a chant started from behind the Bulldogs' bench.

“This is our house!” the Gonzaga student section chanted at the Orleans Arena, “This is our house!”

And after a 77-62 defeat of the No. 5-seeded Lions, the Bulldogs are once again headed to their house, the WCC Tournament championship game, where they have resided the past 13 seasons.

“It was definitely a hard-fought and hard-earned win,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “But we knew it was going to be like that.”

“It was basketball in March: It wasn’t real pretty, but I thought we were very effective.”

A three-pointer by sophomore Bol Kong at the 5:40 mark of the second half put the dagger in Loyola Marymount’s tournament run, giving the No. 14-ranked Bulldogs a double-digit lead that proved too much to overcome.

“Coming in here, all week, we were working on being in attack mode,” freshman forward Elias Harris said. “The coaches made it really simple: Just attack.”

After coasting to a 16-point halftime lead, the Bulldogs held a firm grip on the game until the nine-minute mark of the second half.

Led by point guard Vernon Teel, who scored 14 points, the Lions eventually cut Gonzaga’s halftime lead in half and at one point, trailed by only six.

“It was a physical game,” Harris said. “We knew it was going to be a fist fight and it was nothing short of that. They play hard, with a chip on their shoulder, and I thought we did a pretty good job of matching up with that.”

Loyola Marymount’s exit from the tournament comes after defeating Pepperdine and San Francisco in back-to-back games to advance to the semifinals.

The conference’s regular-season champions held the Lions to shooting 36.7 percent from the field.

Steven Gray scored 18 points and added seven assists for Gonzaga, and 2010 WCC Player of the Year Matt Bouldin scored 12 points.

“It’s huge for our guys to be playing in an atmosphere like this,” Bouldin said, referring to the younger-than-usual Gonzaga roster. “Playing on neutral sites like this, against teams that want to beat you this bad, it’s huge.”

Standing in the way of Gonzaga’s quest for back-to-back conference tournament titles – which would be the sixth in the past seven years – is a familiar foe: St. Mary’s College.

The Gaels advanced to Monday night’s final at the Orleans Arena by dropping Portland, 69-55.

“We played well,” St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said. “We needed to play well. I think the bye worked in our favor and that’s why you play for it, because it worked in our favor.”

Four players scored in double digits for St. Mary’s, including senior center Omar Samhan, who recorded a double double with 13 rebounds.

“The team did a great job,” Samhan said. “Nobody was talking about Monday, about the WCC Championship or anything like that. We were focused and prepared for Portland, because if we weren’t, we’d be on an airplane on Monday.”

The 2010 WCC Defensive Player of the Year also added four blocks and was recently named the conference’s Player of the Week.

“I thought we were really sharp defensively,” he said.

The Gaels led by 11 at the break, shot 55.6 percent from the field and held a game-high lead of 24 points late in the second half.

Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have met twice this season, and the Bulldogs have won both contests. The Gaels finished a game behind in the regular season standings.

“Tomorrow night, it’s all about who is excited to play,” Samhan said. “I think it will be different because we’ve improved defensively and we’re really sharp right now.”

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