Gonzaga has reached the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament each of the last 11 seasons. Judging by their success against their first opponent this year, the 14th-ranked Bulldogs appear in good position to continue that streak.
Top-seeded Gonzaga begins its quest for a 10th WCC tournament title Sunday night while trying for a seventh straight victory over No. 4 seed Santa Clara in the semifinals at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena.
For the third straight season, Gonzaga (24-5) will face Santa Clara in tournament play. The Bulldogs beat the Broncos 52-48 in last season’s semifinals and won 77-68 in their 2007 finals matchup.
The Bulldogs are 6-1 versus the Broncos in the tournament. Santa Clara won 84-73 on Feb. 12, 2007 for its most recent victory over Gonzaga.
This marks the first time in five seasons, however, that the Bulldogs won’t enter the tournament as the defending champions after losing 69-62 at San Diego in the 2008 title game.
Santa Clara (16-16) prevented that rematch from happening by beating the Toreros 80-69 in Saturday’s quarterfinal round. Gonzaga earned an automatic bye into the semifinals after winning the WCC regular-season title with a 14-0 record.
The winner of this contest will face either Saint Mary’s or Portland in Monday night’s championship game.
Though Gonzaga has won seven in a row and 16 of its last 17 games since losing three straight to close out December, the Bulldogs know they can’t look ahead to a potential date in the finals.
“People (in the tournament) play with a sense of desperation down there that we need to match,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They are tough, grinder games.”
That was similar to Gonzaga’s 81-73 victory at Santa Clara on Feb. 26. The Bulldogs shot 52.9 percent, but led by only one at halftime and needed an 11-2 second-half run to take control. This came after Gonzaga beat the Broncos 95-53 at home on Jan. 15.
Josh Heytvelt had a career-high 29 points and Matt Bouldin added 23 for the Bulldogs in last month’s meeting. Santa Clara’s John Bryant - the WCC player of the year - finished with 16 and 11 rebounds.
“That was a great road win for us,” Few said after that game. “We had to really withstand quite an arsenal. We were very efficient down the stretch.”
The 6-foot-10 Bryant, who entered the tournament averaging 18.0 points and 13.9 rebounds, had 24 and a tournament record 27 rebounds on Saturday. The senior, though, is averaging 9.9 points and 6.2 rebounds in 10 career games versus Gonzaga.
Bouldin had 16 points and Heytvelt added 12 in the Bulldogs’ 90-40 rout of South Carolina-Upstate on Tuesday to conclude the regular season.
Heytvelt is averaging a team-leading 15.2 points with 6.8 rebounds. Bouldin is scoring 13.8 points this season, but 17.5 on 56.8 percent shooting in his last four contests.
Santa Clara looks to avoid its 12th straight loss against a ranked opponent since beating then-No. 4 North Carolina 77-66 on Nov. 19, 2004.