Gonzaga back in the WCC race after spending much of year in periphery

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Kevin Pangos puts up 27 points and is clearly the best player on the court in this game. (AP)  
Kevin Pangos puts up 27 points and is clearly the best player on the court in this game. (AP)  

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Streak is still alive, but that's not what Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his players wanted to talk about on Thursday night.

The Zags had just got done disposing of a Saint Mary's team that came in with a dozen straight wins and a No. 13 ranking, a win that moved Gonzaga within a game of the Gaels for the lead in the West Coast Conference.

"This isn't about the streak," Zags senior big man Robert Sacre said.

"It was about us playing with poise and toughness," Few added.

It was about Gonzaga playing perhaps its best overall game of the season, showing the grit and maturity it hadn't displayed in lackluster January road setbacks against Saint Mary's and BYU. It was about the Zags maybe displaying the fact they can be a factor come March due to veterans up front and talented young guards.

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"When we've struggled, we haven't played as tough as we've needed to," Few said after the 73-59 victory. "Especially the interior. Our bigs are capable of being as tough as anyone in the country when they put their mind to it."

Elias Harris finished with a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) and could have erupted for far more if not for early foul trouble. Sacre just missed one with 12 points and nine boards while reserve big man Sam Dower had eight points off the bench. However, it was a pair of freshmen guards who proved to be the difference against a Saint Mary's team that was handed its first loss in league play after 11 victories to start the conference slate.

Kevin Pangos, who had virtually disappeared off the national radar since his nine 3-pointers on Nov. 15 against Washington State as part of ESPN's 24-hour marathon, was clearly the best player on the court after he torched the Gaels for 27 points without committing a single turnover. That's saying something since Saint Mary's boasts one of the elite point guards in the nation in Aussie floor-leader Matthew Dellavedova.

"We call him The Machine," Sacre said of the Canadian freshman. "Because he's automatic."

But Pangos has been as erratic as automatic for much of his freshman campaign. The Zags bring the standout player into a room to take pictures with big-time boosters after home games and Pangos made just his second appearance of the season after the win on Thursday.

"It's unfortunate," Pangos said with a smile while talking about how long it's been since his inaugural appearance.

Pangos was sensational, but fellow frosh Gary Bell was also terrific, finishing with just 12 points, but showing well in every manner while logging a team-high 35 minutes.

Last season Gonzaga dug itself out of a three-game hole to keep The Streak -- an 11-year string of claiming either sole possession or a share of the WCC regular-season title -- alive. It's just two shy of UCLA's record 13 straight conference titles. The Zags entered Thursday night trailing Saint Mary's by two games, but kept their hopes alive with the victory.

"You don't want to end the streak," Pangos admitted. "Especially in my first year."

More important as keeping talk of The Streak alive for the next few weeks, though, it showed the country that the Zags, although unranked and sitting a game behind Saint Mary's, could still be the elite team in the WCC.

"If we didn't win, this thing was over," Few admitted about his team's chances to win the league crown. "Right now we extended it another day."

Gonzaga has five league contests left: home against Loyola Marymount, on the road against Santa Clara and San Francisco, home against BYU and finishing at San Diego. Even if they run the table, a likely scenario, Saint Mary's will have to slip-up somewhere and that may not happen. The Gaels have Santa Clara and LMU in Moraga and finish on the road against Portland and San Francisco.

"We need help," Sacre said. "If it happens, it happens. It's not the end of the world."

Gonzaga has spent much of the season in the periphery, a rarity for a program that has made 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and one that has dominated its league for the past decade-plus. It's been Saint Mary's that had risen up the charts all the way to 13th in the nation, one that earned the premiere BracketBusters matchup next weekend against a Murray State team that lost its first game on Thursday night.

"I challenged them before the game that everyone in the building needed to know who the tougher team in the building was tonight," Few said.

The Zags answered that question emphatically and, in doing so, gave themselves a chance to extend The Streak.

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