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Saint Mary's withstands Gonzaga run to hold on for 69-60 victory in WCC Championship game

Mar. 12—LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga entered the 2023-24 season in unusual territory, picked second in the West Coast Conference preseason poll by the conference's nine coaches.

That may have been unfamiliar to the Bulldogs, but probably not as much as the scene that unfolded at the end of Tuesday's WCC Tournament championship game.

Saint Mary's players spilled onto the court immediately after putting the final touches on a 69-60 victory, creating an image that was unusual, unfamiliar and most of all uncomfortable for a Gonzaga program that had captured the WCC championship each of the past four seasons and 10 of the past 11.

Mitchell Saxen helped Saint Mary's establish a lead in the first half, controlling the paint with his scoring and rebounding, and Aidan Mahaney made sure his work didn't go to waste in the second, scoring 13 of his 23 points after halftime to help the top-seeded Gaels hold off a charge from second-seeded Gonzaga.

"Obviously a really, really hard-fought game, a really physical game," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I thought our guys did a great job after kind of a rough start to both halves, fight back in it, putting ourselves in position to win that thing, and it kind of came down to that last 3 minutes and they made plays, got to the free-throw line and we just came up a little dry at the offensive end."

Gonzaga (25-7) hadn't lost in the WCC title game since 2019, when the Gaels upended the top-seeded Bulldogs 60-47 in Las Vegas. Tuesday's game marked the 14th title-game matchup between the longtime WCC rivals — and 14th since 2004 — matching a record set by Duke and North Carolina in the ACC.

The Bulldogs, who had won nine consecutive games dating to a 64-62 home loss on Feb. 3, are still widely projected to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the 26th straight year and will have five days before learning their seed and location. Gonzaga, which will enter the tournament with an at-large berth for the first time since 2019, has been projected as anywhere from a No. 6 to No. 9 seed.

Things were looking grim for Gonzaga, down 11 points early in the second half of Tuesday's game. The Bulldogs settled for their lowest-scoring output in a first half this season with only 27 points. The situation didn't improve when the Gaels scored 11 of the first 15 points in the second half.

Even with top scorer Graham Ike in foul trouble, Gonzaga managed a comeback over the next 10 minutes and briefly took a one-point lead on free throws from Anton Watson with 7:40 remaining.

Saint Mary's watched the lead vanish, but Mahaney rescued the Gaels with his shot-making, first knocking down a 3-pointer to make it 58-52 and then burying a midrange attempt that gave Randy Bennett's team a seven-point edge with less than 3 minutes to play.

"We lost (Mahaney) on a couple, and the biggest one was we had our hands on a rebound — one of their offensive rebounds was literally in our hands and that was kind of a big play," Few said. "... Ended up finding him and he hit a big 3. Then we had a couple plays where we just weren't very smart with our rotations on who we needed to rotate to. Obviously, you don't want to leave Mahaney or (Alex) Ducas on the 3 line."

After sitting for more than 10 minutes, Ike scored on his first possession back on the floor to trim the deficit to 58-54, but the Gaels scored the next five points on pull-up jumpers from Mahaney and WCC Player of the Year Augustas Marciulionis.

"It's an unbelievable feeling, it still kind of feels surreal," Marciulionis said. "Although we deserved it, but nobody on these team — even our super seniors, I'm pretty sure they never won the WCC Tournament title."

Saxen scored 19 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, and Marciulionis had 13 points to go with eight assists and four rebounds.

Watson led Gonzaga with 18 points to go with seven rebounds, and Ryan Nembhard had 13 points, 11 assists and four turnovers.

Saint Mary's is responsible for both of Gonzaga's lowest-scoring games of the year, limiting the Bulldogs to 62 points in Spokane before holding them to a season-low 60 points on Tuesday.