Zags finish WCC tourney in style

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Usually in basketball, one player can’t beat five. Even if the player’s name is Jordan. The math typically doesn’t work.

But that didn’t stop Jordan Ford from trying.

The Saint Mary’s senior guard singlehandedly tried to will his team to victory over top-seeded Gonzaga Tuesday night in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game in front of 7,210 in a raucous Orleans Arena. Ford had 20 first-half points, but was held to just seven free throws in the final 20 minutes as part of a 27-point performance. 

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In the end, there was no climb up the ladder for Ford and the Gaels as it was the Bulldogs, led by tourney MVP Joel Ayayi’s 17 points, who cut down the nets after a 84-66 victory while avenging the loss to Saint Mary’s in last year’s WCC Tournament.

Gonzaga (31-2), the No. 2 team in the nation, will likely be the No. 1 seed in the West Region when the NCAA Tournament field is announced Sunday. Saint Mary’s (26-8) also figures to go dancing as the bracketologists have the Gaels as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed. Brigham Young, the third WCC team in the NCAA mix, could find itself as high as a No. 5 seed.

“We had to take the ball out of Jordan Ford’s hands,” Gonzaga’s Mark Few said. “It was born out of desperation.”

Ford said he tried to do what seniors are supposed to at this time of the year — lead.

“The would send a second guy at me and try and get the ball out of my hands,” Ford said of being unable to make a second-half field goal. “It was frustrating but I tried to stay with it and get my teammates involved.”

His coach, Randy Bennett, was impressed.

“Incredible. Incredible,” Bennett said. “He hit two game-winners in three games and his first half tonight was remarkable as well. It’s the best stretch I’ve seen Jordan play and I’m glad he’s on our team.”  

Few and Bennett have been battling each other for nearly two decades. Each knows the other so well and they are always prepared. It’s hard to come up with new wrinkles.

So when Ford was hitting shots all over the court, Few knew Bennett was going to give his star the green light. He ran more than one defender at Ford and made him give up the ball or take him out of his favorite spots on the floor when he maintained possession. He was 0 for 4 from the floor in the final 20 minutes.

Bennett simply didn’t have the personnel to match up with Gonzaga’s front line. The Zags went to Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev and Drew Timmie often inside and it accounted for the team’s high shooting percentage from the floor. Gonzaga, which led by as many as 24 late in the second half, wound up shooting 55 percent for the game as Timme had 17 points and Petrusev had 10 points along with 14 rebounds.  

“The beauty of this team is its balance,” Few said. “On any given night, someone else can step up.”

The Gaels had played a double-overtime game Saturday against Pepperdine, then went to the wire in a hard-fought contest with BYU Monday. Eventually, their legs gave out and Bennett’s team ran out of gas.

“I don’t know what but we didn’t play well in the second half,” Bennett said. “We didn’t defend. We didn’t take good shots. They’re really good inside and they kept bringing it. That was th story of the game.”

For Gonzaga, Tuesday was the perfect tuneup for the NCAA Tournament. It is a team with a target on its collective back and the Zags are going to have to be able to play fast in spurts, physical in others and display grit in toughness when things get tight if they hope to punch their ticket to the Final Four in Atlanta in three weeks. 

They did that in Monday’s semifinal win over San Francisco and showed those traits again Tuesday against Saint Mary’s.

“I’m really proud of what this group for what they’ve done,” Few said. “I’m absolutely surprised, pleasantly surprised. What we’ve been able to accomplish is remarkable.”

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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