January 28, 2011
It's only fitting that the loss that may have finally broken Gonzaga's chokehold on WCC basketball came at the hands of the team that has at last eclipsed the Zags in the league's pecking order.
With the score tied, the game clock ticking down and the red-clad Gonzaga crowd in a frenzy, Saint Mary's guard Mickey McConnell sank a contested 15-foot leaner from the left elbow with 1.2 seconds remaining. Thursday night's 73-71 victory left the Gaels (18-3, 6-0) three games ahead of the reeling Zags (13-8, 3-3) in the conference race and in prime position to end Gonzaga's 10-year string of WCC regular season titles.
The shot from McConnell is the culmination of a long, gradual ascendancy for St. Mary's and a sudden, sharp decline for Gonzaga.
Relying on an Australian pipeline that has produced stars Daniel Kickert, Patrick Mills and Matthew Dellavedova to complement West Coast products such as Omar Samhan and McConnell, Saint Mary's has become as Gonzaga's chief rival. The Gaels finally emerged from the Zags' shadow with a Sweet 16 run led by the gregarious Samhan last March, building on that run this season with a more balanced team in the wake of Samhan's graduation.
The high-scoring McConnell is the tough-minded son of a coach who has become such an extension of Randy Bennett on the floor that he has the freedom to call his own plays. Dellavedova is a fellow 3-point marksmen also capable of keeping an opposing defense honest by getting to the rim. And versatile, undersized power forward Rob Jones is the leader of a frontcourt that has collectively replaced Samhan's 20 points and 10 boards a game and provided interior balance.
What has helped Saint Mary's wrest control of the conference away from the Zags is that this year's Gonzaga team is easily the worst of Mark Few's decorated tenure.
Even on a night when enigmatic sophomore Elias Harris lived up to expectations and reserve Sam Dower provided 15 points in 16 minutes, the Zags were still undone by too many turnovers and a lack of scoring production from any guard besides Steven Gray. Overmatched point guards Demetri Goodson and David Stockton combined to shoot 0-for-8 from the floor and Gray overcompensated with five turnovers and 1-for-5 3-point shooting.
The frightening thing for Gonzaga is that this may not be just a one-year blip because the level of competition in WCC play will only increase next season. While the Zags will finally get their point guard next season in decorated recruit Kevin Pangos, Saint Mary's returns its entire core besides McConnell next season and BYU arrives, albeit without guards Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery.
As for this season, the Zags' margin for error for an at-large bid is fading fast.
Since Gonzaga has shown flashes of potential this season yet seems incapable of consistency, perhaps the Zags' best chance to extend their run of 12 straight NCAA tourney bids is a WCC tournament championship in March.