SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)—Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre knew he made a mistake hanging onto the rim after a powerful dunk in the second half.
Despite the 7-footer not being able to restrain himself, No. 24 Gonzaga is closing in on at least a share of a possible 12th straight West Coast Conference title.
“I’m just having fun,” Sacre said after scoring 20 points in the Bulldogs’ 73-62 victory over Santa Clara on Thursday night. “I know I messed up but I’m trying to have fun. When they gave me the technical, I said not on my watch. We’re not losing.”
The technical briefly sparked the Broncos before the Bulldogs pulled away behind the interior tandem of Sacre and reserve forward Sam Dower.
Dower had 18 points and seven rebounds for Gonzaga, which moved within one-half game of first-place Saint Mary’s in the WCC. The Bulldogs (21-4, 11-2) and 21st-ranked Gaels split their two games this season.
“We’re not really trying to focus on that,” Sacre said. “The reality is we can’t overlook all those teams (left to play). We have to stay focused and stay grinding.”
Evan Roquemore had 21 points for Santa Clara (8-18, 0-13), which has lost a school-record 14 straight since beating Eastern Michigan on Dec. 29.
The Broncos were able to keep it close but couldn’t mount a sustained threat. They trailed 45-43 with 14 minutes to play but couldn’t get closer.
“We’ve found ourselves in a position in the second half where it goes from one possession to more than that, and we haven’t been able to overcome that,” Broncos coach Kerry Keating said. “It’s been recurring. We knew it was going to happen.”
Sacre led a dominant performance in the paint for Gonzaga. He and Dower repeatedly scored on uncontested shots inside against the smaller Broncos and combined to go 13 of 17 from the field while forcing Santa Clara to settle for perimeter shots.
It nearly worked against the Bulldogs as Roquemore kept the Broncos close in the second half until Gonzaga pulled away down the stretch.
Conference player of the week Kevin Pangos added 10 points for the Bulldogs, who play two of their final three conference games on the road, including at San Francisco on Saturday.
Santa Clara was playing its first game since announcing on Monday that Kevin Foster, the WCC’s leading scorer, would miss the rest of the season while suspended as a result of his Jan. 21 arrest for driving under the influence.
It was the biggest blemish on what has been a frustrating and disappointing season for the Broncos, whose losing streak is the longest in school history.
Sacre had 10 points in the first half, most on short hooks, but Gonzaga got its biggest lift early from Dower. The sophomore didn’t miss a shot in the first 20 minutes and scored eight points during a 13-3 run that gave Gonzaga a 22-14 lead.
Dower, who entered the game averaging 8.8 points, had 12 by halftime and finished 7 of 8 from the field.
“They were really very efficient,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Sacre and Dower. “They were patient and they took shots on their terms.”
The Bulldogs, who lost 85-71 at the Leavey Center last season, led by as many as nine points before the Broncos closed within 32-27 at halftime.
Santa Clara stayed close in the second half but had no answer for Gonzaga’s interior game.
Roquemore’s 3-pointer with 14:09 left pulled Santa Clara within 45-43 and had the near-capacity crowd buzzing. Gonzaga responded with a 14-4 run.
The game was halted briefly midway through the first half when the shot clock above one basket went out. The problem was corrected during halftime.