Top-ranked Gonzaga will enter the West Coast Conference Tournament under unfamiliar circumstances — coming off a loss.
The Bulldogs (24-3) suffered their only conference defeat in the regular-season finale, 67-57 at then-#23 Saint Mary’s on Feb. 26.
The Bulldogs had already wrapped up the WCC’s top seed and a bye into the tourney semifinals. They’ll play fourth-seeded San Francisco (24-8) on Monday night in Las Vegas.
The Bulldogs weren’t alone in losing that Saturday. The top six teams in the Associated Press poll all suffered defeats that day, the first time in the poll’s history. All of those losses were on the road.
“It’s kind of life in late February and early March, especially on the road,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Guard Rasir Bolton said Gonzaga got “out-toughed” by the Gaels.
“They were definitely the tougher team, played harder, energy, momentum, the whole thing,” Bolton said. “We gotta get back in the lab, be who we are, become tougher as a team and hopefully this never happens again.”
The Dons defeated Brigham Young 75-63 Saturday to advance to the semis. Khalil Shabazz scored 22 points for USF, making five 3-pointers, and Jamaree Bouyea added 18 points and six rebounds.
Dons coach Todd Golden called it one of the program’s biggest victories in the past 35 years and said he believes it has clinched USF’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998. The Dons won NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956 behind Hall of Famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.
“I’m proud of my guys. This was a big game for a multitude of reasons,” Golden said. “If you’d been listening to the media all week, they were trying to build this up as an elimination game. I didn’t feel that that was the case with our body of work. We left no doubt (Saturday).
“We controlled the game after the first four minutes. These guys (Shabazz and Bouyea) are the two best guards in the league. I’m really excited that this team is going to be dancing.”
The game ended with some hard feelings as Bouyea dunked the ball instead of running out the clock.
“It was kind of personal,” Bouyea said. “We played at BYU and they said some things in the game. It was a little chippy and it was just kind of physical and went kind of sideways, but I think that was kind of personal and I just went for the dog bite to the end of the buzzer.”
San Francisco played Gonzaga tougher than most during WCC play.
On Jan. 20 in Spokane, Wash., the Dons were within three points at halftime before falling 78-62. Drew Timme scored 23 points for the Bulldogs and Chet Holmgren added 22 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots. Bouyea had 25 points and eight rebounds for USF.
On Feb. 24, the host Dons rallied from an early nine-point deficit to tie the score midway through the first half, but Gonzaga pulled away for an 89-73 victory as Holmgren had 21 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks.