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Gonzaga-Saint Mary's rivalry ramps up with NCAA bid on the line

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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LAS VEGAS — When Gonzaga met Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game in Las Vegas last March, the Bulldogs entered the Orleans Arena that night carrying house money.

Win or lose, they were going to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. They lost, and the Gaels' were given the ticket to make their run to the Sweet Sixteen, while the Zags still made their 11th consecutive tourney appearance.

A year later, both have advanced to the title game again, but are equally in need of the security blanket that is an automatic NCAA tournament bid.

The best hoops rivalry in the league — and maybe on the West Coast — is poised for one of its most epic chapters on Monday night.

Here's how they got to this point …

• Saint Mary's started Sunday night's semifinal round off with a 73-64 victory over Santa Clara that was a bit out of the Gaels' character.

After averaging 8.8 made 3-pointers per game entering the league tournament, Saint Mary's only hit four of them against the Broncos. Also, senior point guard Mickey McConnell — the team's leading scorer at 16.8 ppg — didn't convert his first field goal until there were three minutes left in the game.

The difference-maker was freshman guard Stephen Holt, who made good in his first start since Nov. 18. Gaels coach Randy Bennett said he anticipated Holt giving a strong defensive presence on Broncos gunner Kevin Foster, who was held to 5-of-18 shooting.

Also, Bennett was inspired by Holt's huge second half performance in the team's regular season finale at Portland, as he finished with a career-high 16 points and four steals.

"I thought about doing it mid-way through the season," Bennett said. "I thought it might get Clint (Steindl) off the (scouting report) a bit and I thought Stephen was ready for it."

As for whether Holt will start on Monday night …

"It's a secret," Bennett said with a smirk.

• Even though Gonzaga had control of the game for much of the way in a 71-67 edging of San Francisco, the Bulldogs had to overcome a few hurdles.

Sparking a first half run to put the Zags up by double-digits was reserve guard David Stockton, who came up with three key steals and ignited a pro-Gonzaga crowd of 7,489 with both a bucket and an impressive assist in transition. But he also picked up three fouls before the break, forcing Mark Few to juggle the lineup a bit.

In fact, the foul epidemic spread, as four Gonzaga regulars each finished the night with four.

The Dons deserved credit for closing in to make it a one-possession game on a few occasions late in the second half. They took advantage of a Gonzaga team that played curiously tight on the offensive end down the stretch.

But the Zags' experience ultimately won out.

USF scored to make it a 3-point game with just under 10 seconds left to play. Stockton then tried to squeeze the ball inbounds to Marquise Carter, but it was knocked loose and recovered by Dons guard Rashad Green. Panicked while sprawled on the floor with the ball, Green hurried to call a timeout.

The problem was that the Dons had none left, instantly evoking memories of Chris Webber's infamous moment that cost Michigan in the 1993 national championship game.

A technical foul was called, and Carter would then ice it at the free throw line.

So here we are.

Monday's winner will be safely in the field of 68, while the loser will without question be hoping for no stolen bids over the next five days, then be sweating it out come Sunday.

The Zags are now 23-9 and the winners of eight in a row, but their RPI is hanging around in the low 60s and sticking out in a bad way despite another challenging non-conference schedule. Some of those

Saint Mary's is 24-7 and split the WCC regular season title with Gonzaga, but a recent 3-game losing streak — including a brutal loss to San Diego — took off some of the luster and uncovered a résumé severely lacking in marquee wins.

The regular season series was divided, with each winning on the other's home floor. Though it's technically a neutral site in Las Vegas, Gonzaga will have a distinct advantage in the stands, as roughly 75 percent of the 7,500 seats in the Orleans on Sunday night were filled with Bulldog backers.

It's a bit of unfamiliar territory for the Zags, though, who aren't accustomed to needing wins like this in the conference tourney ensure that their season ends in the NCAAs.

"I don't think they even look at this stuff," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, referring to outside bracket projections. "Only 45-year-old men and above look at that stuff, unless they're computer illiterate like me. I'm not clever enough to bring it up and look at it. They're into their iPods and their music. They don't surf the Internet for Joe Lunardi, I can tell you that. So I really don't have to do much."

Monday's loser might not be able to avoid paying attention to it for the rest of the week.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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