Maybe a little relieved, worn out or a combination of both, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer leaned his sweaty 6-foot-10 frame on guard Eric McClellan.
With their backs against the wall for three do-or-die games in the West Coast Conference tournament, Wiltjer and company pulled through for an 85-75 victory over top-seeded St. Mary’s in the championship game Tuesday night in the Orleans Arena.
The win guaranteed the second-seeded Zags (26-7) will be in the NCAA Tournament for an 18th consecutive season — the fourth-longest streak in college basketball.
It was also the fourth time since this tournament moved to Las Vegas in 2009 that the Zags have defeated St. Mary’s in the championship game.
Named the tournament’s most valuable player for the second consecutive season, Wiltjer decided credit was due elsewhere.
Specifically to McClellan, the king of the team’s embattled guards.
“My good friend over here, Eric McClellan — this guy defended his (butt) off, hit shots and I am so proud of him,” Wiltjer said.
“Here is the real MVP over here.”
Down the stretch, the Gonzaga backcourt certainly was. McClellan scored 15 of his team-high 20 points in the final 7:17, and Josh Perkins made four clutch free throws as the duo tallied 19 of the team’s final 21 points.
Wait … the guards?
Coach Mark Few has seen this in the making the past few weeks.
“They took (criticism) to heart,” Few said. “For a while, it was hard for them to take coaching. They took it personally. They’ve grown up enough to quit taking it personally. We’re (all) trying to get to the same place.
“Through it all, they stayed confident.”
Make no mistake, the reason the Zags are feared nationally are because of Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, who led Gonzaga to its fourth consecutive WCC tournament title.
“The ones I felt were Sabonis and Wiltjer,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “We did not play smart defensively as far as taking things away from them, which we had the two times we played them.”
Gonzaga came out at a blistering shooting pace, hitting eight of its first nine field goal attempts — and shooting a red-hot 69.2 percent from the floor in the first half (18 of 26).
In that half, Sabonis tallied 12 of his 15 points, and Wiltjer scored nine of his 17 points.
St. Mary’s offense — particularly the 3-point shot — kept the Gaels close. They made 12 3-pointers, including a crucial one by Joe Rahon to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 66-65 with 6:47 to go.
About that time, McClellan and Perkins decided to attack a tiring St. Mary’s defense by going to the rim. It worked — the two guards combined to make all 12 free throws.
“I only had three points in the first half, so I didn’t come out with a mentality I was going to take over the game,” McClellan said. “I just said it is a new half, and I am going to play my game.
“Our bigs (Wiltjer and Sabonis) demand so much attention, and the offense was stagnant at times, but we were able to still be aggressive. Our guards got in the paint and made plays.”
The Gaels picked a bad time to go into a shooting funk, missing seven field goals over a five-minute span to fall off pace.
And McClellan gave the Zags an exclamation-point moment — a dunk — with 28.6 seconds remaining that sent the pro-Gonzaga crowd into celebration, up 81-72.
“They were the hunter this whole tournament, not the hunted,” Few said. “For once, it was a little bit nice to be in that position. We got after Portland, we got after BYU and we got after these guys tonight.”
After the loss of Przemek Karnowski on Dec. 1 to a season-ending back injury, Gonzaga had to adjust its personnel groupings.
It took a while, but “this is as courageous a run as we’ve ever had in the 18 years I have been doing this,” Few said.
And now the Zags can sit back and relax Sunday knowing their name will be called for the 68-team NCAA Tournament.
“It was huge for us because obviously nothing is guaranteed,” Wiltjer said. “We didn’t want to be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday.”
Teams that have earned automatic bids into the NCAA tournament so far:
Austin Peay, Ohio Valley Conference
Chattanooga, Southern Conference
Fairleigh Dickinson, Northeast Conference
Florida Gulf Coast, Atlantic Sun Conference
Gonzaga, West Coats Conference
Green Bay, Horizon League
Iona, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Northern Iowa, Missouri Valley Conference
South Dakota State, Summit League
UNC Asheville, Big South Conference
UNC Wilmington, Colonial Athletic Association
Yale, Ivy League