Eleven years after another team last claimed the WCC regular season title, Gonzaga's stranglehold on the league appears to be loosening.
San Francisco handed the suddenly reeling Zags a 96-91 overtime loss on Saturday night with the help of a controversial call late in regulation that helped turn the outcome in the Dons' favor.
A back-and-forth game appeared to be tipping toward Gonzaga when Robert Sacre grabbed the rebound of a missed USF free throw with 24.5 seconds to go and the Zags clinging to an 81-80 lead. Instead Sacre swung his elbows to clear out the defenders and leveled USF's Angelo Caloiaro with a blow to the face, an intentional foul based on the NCAA's new emphasis on cracking down on raised elbows this season.
"It's one we need to look at as coaches and refs," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the Spokesman Review. "I don't know what the rebounder is supposed to do, and I don't know what to coach the rebounder on."
Four straight free throws enabled USF to open a three-point lead, but a game-tying corner 3-pointer from much-maligned point guard Demetri Goodson helped Gonzaga force overtime. The Zags still couldn't assert their will in the extra period, however, falling after USF freshman Cody Doolin's left-handed scoop shot and free throw broke a tie at 91 apiece in the final minute.
Two straight losses in the Bay Area leaves Gonzaga's streaks of 12 consecutive NCAA tournament berths and 10 straight WCC championships in grave jeopardy just three weeks into conference play. The Zags (13-7, 3-2) have little margin for error to preserve either streak entering the first of two games with first-place St. Mary's Thursday night in Spokane.
What will bolster Gonzaga's bid for an at-large bid in case it doesn't win the WCC tournament in March is an especially difficult non-conference schedule that included victories over Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State. The Zags still have another chance to pick up a marquee win outside league play next month when they host Memphis on Feb. 5.
Still, the eye test suggests this Gonzaga team isn't nearly as good as some of its celebrated predecessors.
Goodson is still too poor a perimeter shooter and too turnover-prone to be a quality starting point guard despite his best game of the season on Saturday night. Forward Elias Harris has regressed after emerging as the program's next star as a freshman. And the Zags continue to be porous defensively, struggling in particular to contain dribble penetration.
The WCC has improved to the point where two road losses shouldn't make the rest of the nation write off Gonzaga entirely, yet the Zags have certainly put themselves into a tough spot with six weeks left in the regular season.
Can they recover quickly enough to still earn an NCAA tournament berth and a WCC championship? Thursday's showdown with St. Mary's should be a good barometer.