Ticket punched: Famous bloodlines help push Zags to WCC crown

LAS VEGAS — David Stockton is reminded of his famous bloodlines in every opposing gym he visits, but one taunt from a game back in December stands out.

"The best sign was at Washington State," he recalled. "It said 'Stockton's Money = Stockton's Minutes.' That was my favorite one."

It's hard to ignore the fact that the Gonzaga redshirt freshman reserve is the son of NBA Hall of Famer and all-time assists leader John Stockton. For 19 professional seasons, he was the epitome of consistency and savvy on the floor for the Utah Jazz.

But to think that David arrived at this point on name alone is flat-out irresponsible.

He's gone from the prep standout who didn't draw a single Division I scholarship offer, to a walk-on at his father's alma mater, to being one of the driving forces behind Gonzaga's late-season resurgence from the brink of the abyss.

His latest exploits helped push the Zags to an automatic NCAA tournament berth with a 75-63 victory over rival Saint Mary's on Monday night in the title game of the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas.

"That's why I wanted to come here," Stockton said. "I've dreamed about the NCAA tournament and watched the teams that went to the NCAA tournament and that's what I wanted to be. Now that we have a chance to, I want to take full advantage of it."

Stockton's numbers at the Orleans Arena in the championship tilt — seven points, three assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes — looked modest.

But there was no question about the impact several of his plays had on the game's outcome — especially in the second half.

He started it off by drawing the fourth foul on Saint Mary's forward Mitchell Young with 14:42 left in the game and Gonzaga up by only three. In sly fashion, while working around Young on the perimeter, he hooked his left arm into that of the Gaels' big man and sold the contact enough to get the whistle. It sent Young to the bench and gave Gonzaga a major size advantage inside it could feast on. Junior Robert Sacre and redshirt frosh Sam Dower did just that.

After Saint Mary's had trimmed a seven-point deficit down to just two with seven minutes to go, Stockton hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to keep the pressure on the Gaels. Then, with 2:29 remaining, in transition, he delivered a smooth bullet over a wave of traffic to find Sacre for an emphatic two-handed slam that went in the books as the Zags' final field goal of the night.

They cruised from there thanks to a wave of free throws, followed by a celebration with the thousands of Zags fans who made it feel like a home atmosphere all night.

It was an unlikely scene when you consider where the team was just six weeks ago.

Following an excruciating overtime loss at San Francisco on Jan. 22, the Zags were 13-7 overall and 3-2 in the WCC, leaving their streaks of 12 consecutive NCAA tourney berths and 10 straight regular-season league titles in the wind.

They closed out strong, shared the conference crown with Saint Mary's at 11-3 and now can head into Selection Sunday with no reason to break a sweat.

"This is where I hoped we'd be in positive-thinking moments," coach Mark Few said. "You envision yourself up here, but I'm going to have to admit that it was tested, definitely."

Gonzaga was helped along by the improving health of sophomore forward Elias Harris, the rediscovered offensive aggression late in the season by junior guard Marquise Carter — the WCC tourney MVP — and the sound leadership from veterans Sacre and Steven Gray.

But Stockton's emergence is as integral as anything.

Following the loss to the Dons, the heavy minutes given to junior point guard Demetri Goodson, who still has started every game this season, were chipped into. After averaging 10.5 minutes in the team's first 19 games, Stockton has played 23.5 a night over the last 13. In return, Few has seen the wispy reserve, who is listed at a generous 5-foot-11, tally 6.2 points and 3.2 assists per game. In 305 minutes played in those 13 outings, he's only turned the ball over 18 times.

The surge from Stockton came just after he was converted from a walk-on into a full-fledged scholarship player.

The Zags also made a similar rotation move down the stretch last season as Goodson struggled, with senior Matt Bouldin taking over point guard duties despite being put out of position. This time, Few had a natural point guard to turn to.

"Everybody trusts him with the ball as a point guard, and he makes great decisions," Harris said. "He has really good vision, sees the court well and that's what we need."

Added Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett, in a testimonial of sorts: "He gives them transition [opportunities]. As soon as he comes in, the tempo of the game goes up."

In attendance for the title game, not surprisingly, was John Stockton.

He did his best to blend into the Gonzaga crowd about 20 rows off of the floor and never got bent out of shape when his son made any of his phenomenal plays.

After the game, the elder Stockton spent some time in the team's locker room, and upon exiting, declined to comment on his son's performance, citing that he didn't want to take away from his moment.

"He was embarrassed to be in there — he doesn't like messing with me or anything like that," David said with a smile. "He tries to keep a really low profile. He's very stoic."

It's rubbed off on David, who said that the taunts from opposing fans all season have made him mature faster as a player than most college kids. The latest was a "Who's Your Daddy?" chant from the Saint Mary's students in Vegas.

"I hear it from every crowd and every person, but I just can't worry about it," he said. "I've been hearing that stuff my whole life, so I just try to embrace it rather than fight it."

It was apparent that he's learned how to deflect it against the Gaels, as Stockton never lost his cool and assumed control in a pressure-packed contest that would leave the losing team vulnerable to an easy shove off of the NCAA tournament bubble.

He's also clearly embracing the role as the potential next-in-line on Gonzaga's long list of successful lead guards.

After all, it's in his blood.

"It's going way faster than I thought," Stockton said of his rise. "I had just hoped I would get in a couple of times [this year] and show the coaches I could play. They've stuck with me a little bit, now I'm playing a lot and I really enjoy it."

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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