Gonzaga comes up short in key moments, concedes more ground to Saint Mary's in WCC race with 64-62 loss

Feb. 4—Gonzaga has been involved in its share of frantic endings this season: on the road against Washington, at home against San Diego State, on the road against Santa Clara.

The Bulldogs still haven't figured out how to get one to go their way.

In a tightly-contested game against its top rival from the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga had a handful of opportunities to swing things in its favor. But after 13 lead changes, the Bulldogs once again watched an opponent make the winning plays they couldn't and find success in the clutch moments that continue to elude Mark Few's squad.

Saint Mary's drilled two critical 3-pointers inside the final three minutes and Gonzaga couldn't replicate the same shot-making on its side of the floor, missing four deep heaves in the closing minutes of a 64-62 loss at McCarthey Athletic Center.

With its second home loss, Gonzaga fell to 16-6 overall and 7-2 in WCC play, giving up more ground to Saint Mary's in the conference standings. The Gaels, who improved to 18-6 and 9-0, now have a two-game lead on the Bulldogs and should be favored in their remaining WCC games — the toughest of which project to be a home contest against San Francisco on Feb. 20 and a regular-season finale against Gonzaga on March 2, also in Moraga, Calif.

"They hit a couple really, really tough shots at the end of clocks and it was hard for us to generate any kind of baskets," Few said. "Took a couple, I thought kind of panicky shots there a little bit in that stretch with the guards going downhill. ... Hey, that's end of the game, guys have got to step up and make shots."

For much of the night, Gonzaga checked most of the boxes that are normally required to beat a Randy Bennett-coached Saint Mary's team. All but one, maybe.

The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle by a 36-29 margin, took care of the ball with just seven turnovers against a defensive-minded Gaels squad and made many of the hustle plays that tend to decide games between the longtime WCC rivals.

But a Gonzaga team that had been undone by subpar 3-point shooting in its previous five losses this season once again struggled to get shots to fall.

The Gaels took a two-possession lead on a clutch 3-pointer from Joshua Jefferson to make it 60-55 with 2 minutes, 37 seconds remaining, and Gonzaga missed all but one of its five attempts from behind the arc in the final four minutes.

"I don't want to make it more than it was, (but) it was a timely make," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said of Jefferson's shot.

The Zags, meanwhile, repeatedly stubbed their toe from the 3-point line — not just in the closing minutes but much of the game. Gonzaga made just 3 of 14 (21%) from distance — the sixth time the Bulldogs have shot under 30% in a loss this season — while the Gaels finished 7 of 18 (38%) from behind the arc.

Saint Mary's seemed to deliver time and time again with the game hanging in the balance.

Minutes after Jefferson's 3-pointer, Augustas Marciulionis made a similar shot to give the Gaels a six-point cushion with 48 seconds remaining. Alex Ducas made a swing pass to the junior guard, who released a deep 3 from the top of the arc with the shot clock expiring.

Earlier in the possession Gaels guard Aidan Mahaney appeared to step out of bounds while holding the ball, but referees didn't blow a whistle and later indicated to Few the play wasn't reviewable. The officials still convened at the scorers table, but only to confirm Marciulionis released his 3-pointer before the shot clock expired.

"They said it wasn't reviewable, that's not reviewable," Few said. "You guys have probably watched it obviously more than I have. I don't really know what transpired there."

After a slow-motion replay seemed to confirm that Mahaney's foot had touched the baseline, Gonzaga students tossed plastic cups, towels and other items onto the court in frustration. Few walked across the court from GU's bench to address the crowd while a public address announcer delivered a variation of the same message over the arena's loudspeaker.

Once the action resumed, Anton Watson knocked down Gonzaga's third 3-pointer to trim the Saint Mary's lead to three points, but the fifth-year senior forward was whistled for a foul on Mitchell Saxen underneath the basket on the next possession, allowing the senior big man to effectively ice the game from the free throw line.

"That was a great college basketball atmosphere, it was a great college basketball game," Few said. "The guys competed. The fact we beat one of the best rebounding teams in the country on the glass, took pretty darn good care of the ball. We did a lot of good things tonight, we just couldn't quite in that last four minutes."

Mahaney finished with a game-high 20 points, on 7 of 17 from the field and 4 of 10 from the 3-point line, while Jefferson added 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Gaels.

Ryan Nembhard led Gonzaga with 18 points, but had just one assist and three turnovers. Watson (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Graham Ike (12 points, 10 rebounds) each had double-doubles for the Bulldogs.

Gonzaga set the tone early, racing out to a 7-0 lead after a pair of baskets from Ike — including an alley-oop from Nembhard — as well as a jumper from the Bulldogs' transfer point guard.

Saint Mary's continued to misfire, going three minutes without a point and waiting six total minutes for its first field goal. After a rugged offensive start, the Gaels did more than settle in on that end of the floor, reeling off a 12-2 run that allowed them to pull ahead briefly.

Gonzaga withstood a late 3-point shooting flurry from Mahaney and after six lead changes inside the final 9 minutes, 23 seconds, the Bulldogs took a 34-33 halftime lead on Nolan Hickman's jumper.

The WCC adversaries finished with virtually the same field goal percentage — Gonzaga was 24 of 55, Saint Mary's finished 25 of 55 — but the Gaels made four more than 3-pointers than the Bulldogs and had 11 assists to GU's five.