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Same as it ever was: Gonzaga thumps USF, rolls into another title game vs. Saint Mary's

Mar. 12—LAS VEGAS — What happens in Las Vegas ... seems to happen every March at the West Coast Conference Tournament.

Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in the championship game — maybe the closest thing to a safe bet in the gambling capital of the U.S.

The second-seeded Zags rallied from an eight-point deficit in the first half to handle No. 3 San Francisco 89-77 Monday at Orleans Arena. No. 1 Saint Mary's dismantled No. 4 Santa Clara 79-65 in the first semifinal.

So, for the 12th time in the 16 tournaments held at Orleans Arena, the Zags (25-6) and Gaels (25-7) will clash for the championship. Gonzaga is 8-3 against Saint Mary's in title games. The teams split two regular-season meetings.

The Zags are in the WCC title game for the 27th straight season.

This one was pretty much a replay of Gonzaga's 86-68 victory over the Dons at the Chase Center on Feb. 29. GU led by one at halftime in that game before catching fire in the second half. A similar storyline unfolded in Monday's semifinal.

No one was hotter than Gonzaga's Ben Gregg. The junior forward didn't make a shot in the first half — 0 of 4 from the field, 0 of 3 behind the 3-point arc — but still contributed with eight rebounds.

Gregg buried four 3-pointers in the first 6:25 of the second half, including two in a row trailing the break that gave Gonzaga a 63-47 lead.

Gregg wasn't alone. Nolan Hickman scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half. Anton Watson was steady throughout and finished with 17 points. Ryan Nembhard added 16 points and 12 assists. Gregg had 17 points and 11 rebounds.

"Benny gets us going no matter what he does," Hickman said. "Defensive end, rebounding, whatever it is he does all the dirty work."

Gonzaga made 10 of its first 11 shots, including 6 of 7 3-pointers, to open the second half.

The Dons tailored their defense to slow down GU's Graham Ike, who scored 48 points in the teams' first two meetings. It worked to some degree as Ike was limited to 10 points, ending his streak of seven consecutive games with at least 20 points, but the Zags found plenty of scoring options.

"I just feel like we have a bunch of good players that know how to hoop," Nembhard said. "If one guy has an off night, other guys will pick him up. We know how great 'G' is and how great he's been playing recently. He just missed a couple of bunnies around the rim."

The Dons sagged off Watson and Gregg to dedicate more attention to Ike. Or, as Gonzaga coach Mark Few put it, "They were hell-bent on doubling down on (Ike) and doing all kinds of things."

Gregg made all four of his 3-point attempts in the closing half.

"Ben's a great shooter," Few said. "For them to play off him is, I don't know, reckless. That's what I told him. Same with Anton, he's shooting over 40 (percent) from 3. But sometimes it's hard when a guy is like insulting you, it kind of messes with your rhythm — should I shoot, should I drive? I thought Anton did a great mix of driving some, shooting some. He's seen that a bunch."

Nembhard and Hickman played all 40 minutes and combined for 18 assists with no turnovers.

"We had 23 assists and three turnovers," Few said. "I've been doing this 25 years and we've never had a line like that."

Gonzaga trailed most of the first half and fell behind by 35-27 after repeatedly losing track of USF's better shooters (Marcus Williams, Malik Thomas, Ndewedo Newbury and Ryan Beasley).

Those four combined for seven first-half 3-pointers as the Dons led for 12-plus minutes before Gonzaga scored 11 unanswered points to move on top 38-35.

Watson scored inside, Ike fed Hickman for a 3-pointer and Dusty Stromer connected on a 3-pointer after a Nembhard offensive rebound. Nembhard capped the run with a mid-range jumper before the Dons' Jonathan Mogbo hit a bank shot just before the buzzer to cut GU's lead to 38-37.

Gonzaga had fewer defensive lapses in the second and did a much better job contesting shots, allowing the Zags to build a 68-49 lead with 11:44 remaining.

"I'm so impressed with how hard they play," Few said. "Chris (Gerlufsen, USF coach) has them doing some great stuff offensively so they're a tough guard for us, especially when they space the floor and they were really shooting the 3-ball.

"But our guys did a great job adjusting, especially in the second half."

Thomas finished with 22 points and Williams added 17.