Nobody wants to be down and out on good fortune in Sin City.
Last season, Byron Wesley was in the literal sense. The star of a downtrodden USC team, he had the last shot to tie Colorado in the opening round of the Pac-12 postseason tournament — but it fell short.
It not only ended his season, but it ended his career with the Trojans, because for his final year he decided to transfer to Gonzaga.
Well, he was back in Las Vegas on Monday night as the top-seeded Zags took on fourth-seeded Pepperdine in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament.
And the 6-foot-4 wing was nearly unstoppable, scoring a season-high 25 points as the seventh-ranked Zags tamed the Waves, 79-61, at the Orleans Arena.
The Zags will play in the WCC title game for an 18th consecutive season Tuesday night, taking on the last team to trip them up — second-seeded BYU. The Cougars won 73-70 in Spokane on Feb. 28 to end Gonzaga’s 41-game home winning streak.
“Hopefully,” Wesley said, “we can redeem ourselves for what they did to us on our senior night.”
The last time the Zags were not in a conference title game was in 1997, when Saint Mary’s topped San Francisco for the WCC title.
“Eighteen straight in a pretty amazing feat,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “What we face a lot, we know we are playing on. But the other teams are playing for their lives — their NCAA tournament lives and to keep their seasons alive.”
But some of the closely nitpicked Zags’ late-season slip-ups — leaky interior defense, hit-or-miss transition offense and lulls of energy — showed up again in the first half against Pepperdine.
They were getting good stretches from Przemek Karnowski (nine points) in the paint, and sizzling shooting from Wesley (10 points), only to give up easy inside baskets on the other end.
“Obviously (that kind of play) weighs on you a little bit,” Zags point guard Kevin Pangos said. “You want to play your best every single night, but that is just not realistic. So we have had to do our best to just communicate and keep pushing each other to get better.
“It is a long season. You are going to have ups and downs.”
And just like that, the defending WCC champion ran Pepperdine right out of the arena.
After the Waves tied it at 35 on Jeremy Major’s 12-footer in the lane to start the second half, the Zags went bonkers.
They made 13 of their first 17 shots. And much of it, including three dunks and three 3-pointers, came with Pangos leading the break in transition.
It ended up being a 30-10 run over the first 9:40 of the half. Contributing 11 of those points, Wesley capped it by weaving through three Pepperdine defenders for a three-point play.
“I would consider myself a rhythm player,” said Wesley, who made 10 of 13 field goals against the Waves. “I was just able to get good looks. I just wanted to come out early and be aggressive, and if I had shots, take them.”
With the Zags, Wesley gets one more night in Las Vegas, something he did not have a year ago.
“Nothing beats winning,” Wesley said.
Forward Kyle Wiltjer (left hip) started and played 31 minutes Monday, scoring 17 points. He also had a big second half with a pair of 3-pointers. Few said a big “assist” goes to team chiropractor Kelli Pearson, who flew down to treat Wiltjer’s hip on Sunday. “Fixed him right up,” Few said. “As of (Sunday) night, he was feeling way, way better and moving good (Monday). We knew we were in pretty good shape.” … The last time Pepperdine beat the Zags was in 2002. … Last season, the Zags handled BYU, 75-64, to win their third WCC title in four seasons.