LAS VEGAS—Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. did his level best to keep things in perspective last week when the Bulldogs soared to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time in school history.
“If we’re No. 1 for a week and we lose,” Bell said, “no one’s going to remember this.”
Wrong, Gary. If the Bulldogs had lost to the bottom seed at the West Coast Conference tournament, Gonzaga fans would have never forgotten.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Bell’s memory theory did not get put to the test Saturday evening. However, the ninth-seeded Loyola Marymount Lions battled the top-seeded Bulldogs ferociously in the first half — trailing just 27-26 at the break — before Gonzaga dominated the second half in a 66-48 victory in Saturday’s semifinal.
The Bulldogs (30-2) won their 13th straight game and broke the school record for wins. The 2001-02 and 2005-06 squads finished 29-4.
Gonzaga will play for the conference title Monday (6 p.m., ESPN) against No.-2 seed Saint Mary’s (27-5) a 69-66 winner in overtime over San Diego in Saturday’s late semifinal.
The Lions (11-23), playing their fourth game in four nights, rode adrenalin-fueled legs through a first half that included four ties and eight lead changes. Only in the second half, when an early 14-0 run pushed Gonzaga ahead 46-31, did the telltale signs of weary legs — shots coming up short and players getting beat down the floor on defense — doom LMU.
“They’re a bunch of fighters they need to be commended for the run they had,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Few credited his team with playing “excellent defense all night.” The 48 points was a season low for the Lions, who shot 30.6 from the field.
“We just played with more emotion (in the second half),” Gonzaga forward Elias Harris said. “We came out flat.”
“We played with a lot more energy (after halftime),” point guard Kevin Pangos agreed. “We moved the ball around a lot better.”
Pangos poured in eight of his 14 points in barely 4 minutes to spark the 14-0 spurt. Harris also came to life in the second half. He finished with 21 points and eight points to cover for Wooden Award finalist Kelly Olynyk, who had eight rebounds, but scored just eight points on 3-for-10 shooting.
The Bulldogs went 16-0 in conference play and crushed Loyola Marymount by 45 and 29 points earlier in the season. The Lions, who finished last in the WCC at 1-15, won three straight games in Las Vegas after coming into the tournament with a 14-game losing streak.
“We just tried to leave it all on the floor every time we were out there,” LMU star Anthony Ireland said.
Ireland, the only Lions player with more than eight points, scored 19. Pangos was one of several defenders who worked hard to contain the explosive guard, who started the day 13th in NCAA Division I with 20.4 points per game.
Most fans in the sellout crowd of 7,896 were Gonzaga supporters, though the LMU student section broke out in “Over-rated!” chants from time to time.
Colorful Lions coach Max Good had only, uh, good things to say about the Bulldogs.
“One of my heroes, (pro wrestler) Ric Flair, said, ‘If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,’ ” Good said. “Any man that’s 60 years old with cellulite that can win rasslin’ matches, that’s a bad man.”