LAS VEGAS — Early in January, coach Mark Few began to wonder about how this season would play out for his Gonzaga men’s basketball team.
Starting forward Sam Dower Jr. was hobbled with a bad back. Shooting guard Gary Bell, Jr. was sidelined for weeks with a broken hand. Point guard Kevin Pangos was slowed by turf toe.
In large part, that was the biggest reason the Zags weren’t playing great basketball.
“You try not to get those thoughts,” Few said. “But it makes you wonder.”
Never miss a local story.
And it makes a coach appreciate weeks like these in early March — winning another West Coast Conference tournament title.
The Zags started fast and furious, pressing Brigham Young University from every angle, and they survived a second-half lull to hold off the Cougars, 75-64, on Tuesday night in the Orleans Arena.
Dower led Gonzaga with 20 points and 13 rebounds, and was voted the tournament’s most valuable player. David Stockton was just as valuable, finishing with four points, five rebounds, seven assists and three steals — and was the catalyst for everything promising early.
The repeat effort counts as the Zags’ 13th conference tournament crown as they earned the WCC’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
“It never gets old. Never gets old,” Few said.
With this title came a little more emotion from the longtime coach. He called 2013-14 the hardest season he has ever endured. And amid some of their regular-season struggles — the Zags didn’t have a significant out-of-conference victory, then lost three WCC games, including back-to-back defeats at BYU and San Diego three weeks ago — more than a few wondered if Gonzaga was an NCAA tournament-type squad.
“We came in here with the mindset of winning and controlling us being in the (NCAA) tournament,” Stockton said.
It took just 10 minutes for the Zags to land the game’s most significant blow. Stockton was all over the place at both ends of the court. His penetrations gave the Cougars fits, and his dishes for easy baskets, especially to Dower, gave Gonzaga plenty of points.
“They are really balanced, and I think it’s a team ... that can make a really, really deep run in the (NCAA) tournament,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “They are a very good offensive team, and have a point guard (Stockton) who is fearless.”
The Zags made 11 of their first 16 field goals and forced seven BYU turnovers in the first 9 minutes, 31 seconds to build a 25-9 lead.
“They were great. ... That is how you want your guys this time of year. We were in attack mode,” Few said. “David had a real good feel for the pace of the game, wanting to play fast but not crazy. So we were picking and choosing when we ran.”
Then came the game’s most unexpected sequence — the smallish Stockton coming over on the weak side to help, elevating and sending Anson Winder’s running shot into the crowd of Gonzaga cheerleaders along the baseline for a thunderous blocked shot.
“That was impressive — I don’t think I’ve ever had a block like that,” Dower said. “He’s been talking about getting a block, and waiting for it for a while.”
The comment drew a few chuckles from reporters in the postgame press conference, to which Few interrupted with his own snappy retort.
“I don’t think we need to be encouraging him,” Few said. “Five-foot-six guards are strip guys who take charges.”
As seamless as the first half was, Gonzaga stalled when BYU slowed the pace, mainly off its zone defense.
After trailing 53-33 with 15:09 to go, the Cougars went on a 12-2 run to cut their deficit to 10 points. Standout Tyler Haws finished with 24 points, and was 11 of 11 from the free throw line.
Twice in the final three minutes, BYU trailed by just eight points but got no closer. Gonzaga made 12 of its final 15 free throws.
As far as what kind of seed the Zags will get on Sunday — it is hard to tell. ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has had them seeded anywhere from a No. 7 to a No. 9 seed over the past month.
Gonzaga is now 10-4 against teams inside the top 100 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), and is near the top 20 in the RPI rankings themselves.
“For these guys to step up (and) make it happen, not only in the regular season ... but to come down here and not share it is just an awesome, awesome experience,” Few said.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 email@example.com @ManyHatsMilles