Gonzaga reached the NCAA Tournament the previous 17 times by building its résumé over the course of the season.
The Zags didn’t have that luxury this year. Lose in the West Coast Conference title game and there was a chance one of the nation’s longest NCAA streaks would come to an end.
Gonzaga took the guesswork out of its postseason fate with a dominating offensive performance, shooting its way past Saint Mary’s 85-75 Tuesday night in the WCC championship game to earn its 18th straight NCAA Tournament berth.
“All is well in Zagville!” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few told the crowd inside Orleans Arena after the game. “The streak is alive!”
It certainly was in jeopardy heading into the WCC tournament.
Despite sharing the WCC regular-season crown, Gonzaga (26-7) had a few smudges on its résumé and was not a lock to make the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags took the suspense out of Selection Sunday with a balanced attack and by shooting 61 percent in the latest installment of their rivalry with Saint Mary’s.
Eric McClellan scored 20 points, former University of Kentucky standout Kyle Wiltjer 17 and Josh Perkins added 16 for Gonzaga, which helped seal its 15th WCC title by hitting 21 of 22 free throws.
Domantas Sabonis added 15 points and eight rebounds, helping the Zags establish an early inside-out game that set the stage for the rest of the hot-shooting night.
Gonzaga’s guards, supposedly the weak link on this team, closed it out by scoring 19 of the Bulldogs’ final 21 points.
“It was huge for us because nothing’s guaranteed,” said Wiltjer, who was named the tournament’s MVP.
“We didn’t want to be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday and I’m proud of these guys for these past couple games, just having the will to win.”
Saint Mary’s (27-5) tried to keep up with the Bulldogs’ shooting and did most of the way through, making 12 of 25 from three-point range.
The Gaels were hurt by turnovers to fall into a big early hole and ran out of steam after tracking the Bulldogs down in the second half.
Saint Mary’s must wait for Selection Sunday to see if it has a spot in the NCAA bracket, though it should be in good shape. Emmett Naar had 25 points and Joe Rahon added 16 for the Gaels.
“It was a heck of a game,” Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett said. “We played well enough to win offensively and we weren’t close defensively.”
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are no strangers to the WCC title game, meeting for the eighth time since 2004.
The difference this time was the favorite.
In the past, it was always Gonzaga. The Zags have been the dominant force in the WCC and beat Saint Mary’s five times in seven games with the tournament title on the line.
This season, the Gaels had the edge heading into Las Vegas. They swept Gonzaga during the regular season for the first time since 1995 and entered the WCC tournament as the No. 1 seed.
The third leg of this season’s rivalry was an offensive showcase, the teams combining to hit 13 of their first 14 shots, revving up the already-amped atmosphere inside Orleans Arena even more.
“The coaches preach for us to come out and let it rip and it’s fun to play like that,” McClellan said.
The Zags gained some separation with a bit of defense.
Gonzaga didn’t exactly keep the Gaels from making shots — they went 13 of 26 in the first half — but did harass them into turnovers that set up shots in transition.
The Zags outscored Saint Mary’s 15-4 on points off turnovers and hit 18 of 26 shots to lead 43-35 at halftime.
“We didn’t do a lot of things right defensively, but turnovers that lead to easy baskets at the other end is hard to defend,” said Rahon, who was 4-for-7 from three-point range.
The torrid shooting continued in the second half and the Gaels cut down on the turnovers, allowing them to keep up with the Zags in an entertaining second half.
Gonzaga used a mini spurt capped by McClellan’s straightaway three-pointer to push the lead to 75-67 with just over 2 minutes left and kept its cushion from there to leave no doubt about extending its streak.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs lead the all-time series against Saint Mary’s 63-29 … Gonzaga has not missed the NCAAs since 1998. … McClellan made all nine of his free throws.
St. Mary’s: The Gaels had eight total turnovers, leading to 20 points for Gonzaga. … Evan Fitzner had 11 points. … Dane Pineau finished with 10 rebounds, including six of Saint Mary’s 11 on the offensive glass.