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Gonzaga rallies from 13-point deficit, but can't finish job in first loss to Santa Clara since 2011

Jan. 11—SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After last week's home West Coast Conference sweep of Pepperdine and San Diego, Gonzaga coach Mark Few stressed the Bulldogs would need to bring their defense on the road, anticipating a tough environment and even tougher opponent Thursday night at Santa Clara.

The Bulldogs left a number of things back home in Spokane during a 77-76 loss at the Leavey Center that required Santa Clara guard Adama Bal to convert a difficult layup through contact inside the final 5 seconds to give the Broncos their first win over Gonzaga since 2011.

Gonzaga (11-5, 2-1 WCC) will have to wait a few days to learn the ramifications of its second road loss this season, but the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs will almost surely drop out of the Associated Press Top 25, ending a streak of 143 consecutive appearances that dates back to 2016.

The Bulldogs also squandered their first chance to give coach Mark Few his 700th career victory and should fall a handful of spots in the NCAA NET ratings that refresh every morning.

"Hey, we showed some courage and toughness coming back and put ourselves in a position to win" Few said, "but didn't make enough plays down the stretch to finish off."

Gonzaga point guard Ryan Nembhard converted a 15-footer from the left wing to extend the lead to four points with exactly 1 minute left, but the Bulldogs were undone by defensive lapses inside the final 60 seconds.

The first allowed Johnny O'Neill to finish a two-handed dunk with nobody in a Gonzaga uniform within 2 feet of the junior forward. It trimmed the deficit to two points with 50 seconds left and following a missed shot from Nembhard, Bal earned two free throw opportunities after a foul by Graham Ike — the fifth and final one for Gonzaga's productive junior forward.

Bal made just 1 of 2, but Nembhard missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw opportunity, giving Santa Clara the ball 76-75 with 12 seconds remaining. O'Neill grabbed the rebound and handed off to Bal, who went coast to coast, making a move on Nolan Hickman before rising up to knock a 10-foot jumper off the glass and through the net.

Bal was fouled by Hickman on the play but missed the ensuing free throw and Gonzaga couldn't get a shot off inside the final 4.6 seconds. Moments later, hundreds of crimson-clad Santa Clara students were stampeding onto the floor to celebrate a result that gave Broncos coach Herb Sendek a milestone victory and spoiled the one awaiting Few.

"It happened in transition. We'd done a good job with our switches getting the right guy on him," Few said. "But it happened in transition and I think we were all certain of where it was going to go and with our halfcourt defense I thought we defended it pretty well down the stretch of the game. In transition, it's whoever can take him and (Bal) made a tough shot.

"It usually happens when you miss a free throw like that."

The Zags may have left a few things back in Spokane — defense, rebounding, 3-point shooting — but they didn't forget Anton Watson, who nearly willed his team to a gutsy road win. Reminiscent of his 32-point outburst against UCLA at the Maui Invitational, Watson made almost all of his shots on a night many of his Gonzaga teammates couldn't get them to fall.

The senior forward matched his career high set at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, scoring 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the floor. The Gonzaga Prep graduate who ranks second on the Bulldogs' all-time steals list set a career high with six steals against the Broncos.

"I was feeling it and coach was trying to get me the ball and I was just being aggressive," Watson said. "For us to win, I feel like I need to do that in a lot of games. Just having that mindset coming into every game I think is good for me and I think everyone's going to start hitting shots and it's going to be all right."

The Bulldogs reverted to old habits, going just 2 of 20 (10%) from the 3-point line, and for the second time this season conceded an advantage on the glass, losing the rebounding battle 44-31. Santa Clara won despite committing 18 turnovers.

Bal led the Broncos with 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting from the floor. Brenton Knapper chipped in 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the 3-point line.