Gonzaga rewind: Rebounding, late-game execution costly for Zags in title game loss to Saint Mary's

Mar. 13—LAS VEGAS — Tuesday's West Coast Conference Tournament championship had many of the normal components of a typical Gonzaga-Saint Mary's game.

Physical play from both teams, a momentum-swinging run from the Gaels followed by one from the Zags, heated exchanges between opposing players during the game and authentic compliments traded by the longtime coaches afterward.

"Tons and tons of respect for Saint Mary's," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "They're a tough, tough out and physical and smart."

"Honestly, they've helped us become the program we are, because we were punching up there for a long time just trying to do what they're doing and be as good as they were," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "It's made us good."

Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have seen lots of each other lately, with three meetings over 38 days. After the WCC rivals split matchups in the regular season, the Gaels came out on top on Tuesday beating the Bulldogs 69-60 at Orleans Arena.

We review what went wrong for the Zags — offensive execution and rebounding being the main culprits — in their first WCC title game loss since 2019.

Offense fizzles late

Late-game offensive execution was one of the primary issues in many of Gonzaga's early losses this season.

The Bulldogs finished 1 of 12 from the field down the stretch of a 78-73 loss to Washington in Seattle, were held without a field goal inside the final 3:12 of an 84-74 home loss to San Diego State and went more than 3 minutes without scoring late in the second half of their first meeting against the Gaels, a 64-62 loss.

Those problems returned at the wrong time Tuesday night in the WCC title game.

After Anton Watson gave Gonzaga a 52-51 lead with 7:40 remaining, Saint Mary's outscored the Bulldogs 18-8 the rest of the way. Gonzaga went 2 for 11 from the field during that stretch before Ryan Nembhard and Ben Gregg made shots inside the final 30 seconds with the result all but sealed.

"A few empty possessions from us," GU's Nolan Hickman said. "Not good looks at the end of it, I want to say like the 4-minute mark. We weren't really getting clean looks. Not as clean of a look as they were on the other end, but yeah, I think that would probably be the biggest thing."

Saint Mary's closed the game by going 5 of 7 from the field. The Gaels got a handful of opportunities at the foul line, making seven free throws inside the final 7:18.

Glaring margin on glass

You'd only have to go back one year to find the last example of Gonzaga finishing minus-17 or worse in the rebounding column.

The Bulldogs lost the rebounding battle 45-26 (minus-19) but still managed to pull out a 77-75 road win against San Francisco on Jan. 5.

A handful of years before that, North Carolina bullied Gonzaga on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 42-21 (minus-21) in a 103-90 victory for the Tar Heels.

After those two, you'd have to go back to the 2008-09 season to find a game in which the Zags conceded a larger advantage on the glass than they did Tuesday.

"(Mason) Forbes and (Mitchell) Saxen, they're good rebounders and kind of just sit next to the hoop," Watson said. "They're strong, so I didn't even know Saxen got 15 rebounds. So yeah, we got pounded on the glass."

Gonzaga had conceded the rebounding advantage in five other games this season, with its previous low of minus-13 coming in a 77-76 loss at Santa Clara. The Bulldogs were plus-6 in their first meeting with Saint Mary's, but the Gaels were more effective on the glass in each of the last two meetings with Forbes in the starting lineup for injured forward Joshua Jefferson.

The Zags were minus-11 when the teams played in Moraga, California, two weeks ago and minus-17 on Tuesday.

"They were more physical and probably a better rebounding team when they put Forbes in there," Few said. "He's bigger, more athletic and they're putting him around the basket. I think it was just mostly that."

Saxen set his career high with 16 rebounds in a double-overtime win against UNLV on Dec. 16, but the 15 he pulled down on Tuesday were a career high in a regulation game.

"We really pride ourselves on that, and I think that's probably where we won the game and separated a little bit, was keeping them off the boards," Saxen said. "Anytime we give one up, we don't feel like that should happen at all."

Watson's willpower

Watson entered Tuesday night with an opportunity to finish his career with a spotless record in WCC championship games. The senior forward will have to settle for a 4-1 mark after coming up short in his 14th career game against Saint Mary's.

Watson was GU's top performer in a game that saw Graham Ike pick up early fouls, Nembhard commit a handful of uncharacteristic turnovers and Hickman struggle to find his rhythm from the 3-point line.

The Gonzaga Prep product was critical of his efficiency, but still carried the Bulldogs' offense through long stretches on Tuesday night, scoring a team-high 18 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field and 6 of 8 from the free-throw line.

Watson also had seven rebounds while dishing out three assists and no turnovers.

"He fought, he always gives you great effort," Few said of Watson. "He did everything he could. He's a little bit undersized when they play that lineup, so he gave us all he could like he always does and made plays, had to improvise and do what he does. I thought Anton played good under the circumstances."

It was Watson's highest-scoring game since he had 20 points in Gonzaga's 96-64 home win against Portland on Feb. 7. It signified drastic improvement from the Bulldogs' last game against Saint Mary's when the veteran forward scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting from the floor and had three rebounds.