MORAGA, Calif. -- Gary Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos and the Gonzaga Bulldogs took a big step toward taking back the conference title that Saint Mary's wrestled away from them a year ago.
Bell scored 20 points and helped fuel a fast start to the second half that helped No. 5 Gonzaga take a stranglehold on the West Coast Conference race with a 77-60 victory over Gaels on Thursday night.
Pangos added 18 points and Kelly Olynyk scored 17 for the Bulldogs (24-2, 11-0), who have a two-game lead over the Gaels (21-5, 10-2) in the loss column after sweeping the season series. Saint Mary's ended Gonzaga's 11-year run at the top of the conference by winning both the regular season and tournament titles last year.
|More on college basketball|
"It means a lot to me and the guys who haven't gotten one yet since we've been here," Pangos said. "It was huge for us. Now we're that much closer to getting that conference title we didn't get last year when they took it away from us."
Matthew Dellavedova scored 19 of his 22 points in the first half and Stephen Holt added 17 for the Gaels, who are still looking for that signature win to boost their chances to make the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. Saint Mary's has won 13 of 15 games but both losses have come against Gonzaga.
"It's tough right now but we just have to flip the page," Holt said.
The Bulldogs took control early in the second half, getting a 3-pointer from Bell to start a 7-0 run in the opening 1:06 to take the lead for good. They extended the advantage to 46-37 when Bell hit a 3-pointer after Gonzaga got two offensive rebounds on the trip and Olynyk's 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down made it 52-37 with under 15 minutes to go to cap the 20-4 run to open the half.
"You just can't do that," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "You can't come out in a game like that against a good team and spot them 10 points to start the half. It's a tough way to get a win."
After rallying from 20 points down to have a chance to win the first meeting in Spokane, the Gaels were never able to get the deficit under four points the rest of the way.
Bell's third 3-pointer of the second half gave the Bulldogs a 10-point lead with about 4 minutes left and the Bulldogs went on to hand the Gaels their most lopsided home loss in eight years.
"The thing about Gary is he takes them if they're there but he does not force a lot of things," coach Mark Few said. "Today it was there. They were really collapsing down on our bigs and that opened up some jump shots. One thing he can do is he can knock down jump shots."
This proved to be another intense meeting between these fierce rivals who are tied for the most wins among any programs on the West Coast over the past six seasons. After spending years chasing the Bulldogs in the WCC, the Gaels had won four of the past eight meetings heading into this game, including two conference tournament titles.
This was one of the most anticipated meetings between the schools with Gonzaga chasing the top spot in the polls and Saint Mary's looking to bolster its case for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament if the Gaels fail to repeat in next month's conference tournament in Las Vegas.
The Bulldogs are the highest-ranked team to visit Moraga since No. 3 DePaul beat Saint Mary's 76-74 in 1984-85. But the Gaels dropped to 0-9 all-time against teams ranked in the top 5 and have just one win in 23 games against top 10 teams.
Gonzaga started off fast, using its strong inside game led by Olynyk to take a 26-17 lead with less than 6 minutes left in the opening half.
Then Dellavedova shot Saint Mary's right back into the game to the delight of the boisterous crowd. Dellavedova hit three 3-pointers, including a deep one over 6-foot-8 Sam Dower that gave him 19 points in the half and tied the game at 30.
Walk-on Jordan Giusti gave the Gaels their first lead since scoring the first basket when he hit a 3 from the corner with 5 seconds left. Mitchell Young then fouled Pangos on the inbounds pass 90 feet from the basket with 1.5 seconds left and Pangos hit both free throws to cut Saint Mary's lead to 33-32.
"They were hitting some crazy shots," Olynyk said. "Kudos to them for hitting them. But we knew they wouldn't be able to beat us on those shots all game."