MORAGA, Calif. -- Gonzaga coach Mark Few has developed another big scoring threat in time to help the Bulldogs mount another tournament run.
Freshman Adam Morrison had 22 points and No. 7 Gonzaga scored 16 straight points late in the second half to clinch the West Coast Conference regular-season title with a 79-60 win over Saint Mary's on Saturday night.
"I know this sounds corny, but we just want to get better and play our best basketball in March. That's what we've always done," Few said. "I think with our young players playing so much tonight, this is finally happening."
Morrison scored six points during the decisive run and was helped by fellow freshman Sean Mallon, who finished with 12 points for the Bulldogs (21-2, 11-0).
Adding those talented freshmen to a core led by Blake Stepp, Ronny Turiaf and Cory Violette, this year's Bulldogs could be even better than the teams that made a habit of busting up NCAA tournament brackets in recent years.
After three straight trips to the round of 16, Gonzaga has failed to make it past the first weekend of the tournament the last two years, losing in double overtime to No. 1 seed Arizona in the second round last March.
But Morrison and Mallon might give this team the depth and athleticism to compete with the big-time programs from the more prominent conferences.
Even though Turiaf and Stepp sat out more than half of the first half with foul trouble and starting forward Erroll Knight was ejected early in the second, the Bulldogs had plenty of options to help wrap up their sixth conference title in seven years.
Stepp scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half for the Bulldogs, who tied a school record with their 14th straight win. Turiaf added 11, and Violette had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
"It feels great to win it this early and to be undefeated," Stepp said. "No matter what happens now, this is our league."
Paul Marigney and Daniel Kickert each scored 12 points to lead the Gaels (15-10, 6-4), who had won eight straight home games. Saint Mary's shot just 33 percent.
After Marigney's drive cut Gonzaga's lead to 59-55 with 8:53 to go, Saint Mary's didn't score again until E.J. Rowland's basket with 2:32 left.
"I think we became frustrated," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "Frustration led to some forced shots, bad shots and missed shots."
Morrison, who came in after Knight got two technicals in the first 6:08 of the second half, had three baskets during the spurt. The Gaels had a hard time matching up with the 6-foot-8 Morrison, who was too quick for their big men and too big for their guards.
Morrison hit a 3-pointer, scored on drives and turnaround jumpers in the post, showing the skills that make him so difficult to defend.
"We were looking for Adam because not a lot of people can keep him down," Stepp said. "He's so big and can really score. When he's feeling it, it's tough not to run your offense through him."
The Gaels fought back from a 15-point halftime deficit behind three 3-pointers early in the second half from Tyler Herr. But each time they seemed to be in position to take the lead, Stepp came up with a big play. He hit three 3-pointers of his own in the first five minutes of the half and set up his teammates for easy scores.
The boisterous sellout crowd began the chants of "Over-rated! Over-rated!" when Gonzaga came out for pregame warmups. But the Bulldogs - the highest-ranked team to play in McKeon Pavilion in 20 years - lived up to their billing.
Gonzaga took control early with its defense. Saint Mary's was just 3-for-15 from the floor - with all three baskets coming after offensive rebounds - before Rowland scored on a drive more than midway through the half to cut it to 16-12.
Gonzaga then got it going offensively, going on a 15-4 run to take a 15-point lead with about three minutes left in the half. Morrison sparked the surge with 11 points, including a 3-pointer that gave the Bulldogs a 40-25 halftime lead.
"We went through a patch where we took bad shots and didn't take the right options," Kickert said. "They converted on every mistake we made."
Bulldogs center Richard Fox returned from knee surgery to play for the first time since Dec. 31 and had one rebound in two minutes.
The Associated Press News Service
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