This Title Remains Up for Grabs

Times Staff Writer

The championship game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament Monday night, still being played as this edition went to press, was a study of feast and famine.

Gonzaga was promoting a "Drive for Five," going for its fifth consecutive title and another automatic NCAA tournament berth.

San Diego had a powerful "Thirst for First," having never won the tournament and not qualified for the NCAA's big dance since 1987.

Gonzaga's RPI ranking of 38 gave it reason to believe it would receive an NCAA berth regardless of the outcome of Monday's game.

San Diego, with an RPI of 94, needed a victory or the best it could hope for was a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

Top-seeded Gonzaga, playing in its sixth consecutive final, had a 13-game winning streak in the WCC tournament after defeating St. Mary's, 73-52, in a semifinal Sunday.

But a twist of fate occurred in that game when all-conference forward Cory Violette, the Bulldogs' top rebounder and third-leading scorer, sprained his left ankle in the second half, leaving him unable to play Monday.

With the 6-foot-8, 255-pound Violette sidelined, many believed Gonzaga would have trouble matching up with San Diego's one-two punch of center Jason Keep, 6-10 and 280, and forward Jason Blair, 6-7 and 235.

Gonzaga, though, came out ready to play. The Bulldogs made their first six shots and opened a 15-3 lead after guards Blake Stepp and Kyle Bankhead made consecutive three-point baskets. San Diego missed its first five shots and appeared out of sync.

Just as quickly, the game turned. Gonzaga started missing shots and picking up fouls.

San Diego made four of its next five shots and got a lift off the bench from freshman Nick Lewis, Keep's replacement.

Lewis, 6-10 and stick-thin, made two three-pointers and scored eight consecutive points, igniting a 15-2 run that gave the Toreros a 25-22 lead with 8:27 left in the half. After its strong start, Gonzaga missed nine of 12 shots.

Lewis scored 10 points in the first half and San Diego took a 38-33 lead into the locker room. Forward Zach Gourde, picking up the slack for Violette, led Gonzaga with nine first-half points on four-for-four shooting.

Although San Diego was happy to reach its first tournament final since 1994, Coach Brad Holland said that wasn't enough.

"We don't want to be satisfied with just getting to the finals," Holland said before the game. "Gonzaga's been there many times. We'll have to play a tremendous game against them.

"[But] in tournament play, amazing things can happen."

Senior guard Matt Delzell, one of the leaders of San Diego's 72-63 semifinal victory over San Francisco on Sunday, said this was a different Torero team than in past seasons.

"I think we have more confidence this year," said Delzell, a four-time member of the conference all-academic team. "I think it's the mental part. We're a little more mature."

Gonzaga defeated San Diego twice in the regular season, including a 72-69 victory March 1 at Jenny Craig Pavilion to decide the conference title. Keep took responsibility for the loss after he was held to 14 points on three-of-nine shooting.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World