Gonzaga takes 20-point lead, then holds off Saint Mary’s

SPOKANE — The two powers of West Coast Conference basketball got together here Thursday night for a renewal of their taut rivalry, with a twist _ Gonzaga was, for once, chasing Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels, who scissored Gonzaga’s 11-year stranglehold on regular-season championships last year, got the Zags’ best shot on this night — and GU got the Gaels’.

Gonzaga, ranked No. 8 this week in the coaches poll, raced to an 18-point halftime lead, then looked vulnerable to a monumental collapse as Saint Mary’s roared back within one in the final seconds before succumbing, 83-78.

Behind 54-34, the Gaels rode Stephen Holt’s offense back into the game. At one stretch, banging in jumpers but mostly beating the Zags off the dribble, Holt scored eight of his team’s 10 points, and his three with 12:05 left brought SMC back to a 10-point deficit, 59-49.

As the sellout crowd grew more stunned, the Gaels kept coming. Kyle Rowley’s flip inside got them within six, and then Mitchell Young took a rebound from Kelly Olynyk, deposited it from short range, and it was 59-55, Gonzaga.

The Zags stretched it back to nine and looked comfortable, but the Gaels, spreading the floor with good shooters, wouldn’t go away. Beau Levesque’s trey with 6:11 left made it 67-64, Gonzaga.

The key sequence came inside the four-minute mark. Dellavedova, struggling most of the night offensively, missed an open three that would have cut Gonzaga’s 74-69 lead to two. The Zags, in transition, countered with a basket by Olynyk on a feed from David Stockton, and Olynyk’s free throw stretched it to 77-69 with 3:32 left.

Once again, St. Mary’s didn’t quit. Dellavedova rained a three on Elias Harris with 1:18 left to cut the deficit to three. After Olynyk couldn’t coax home a shot, Harris tied of Dellavedova on the rebound with 49 seconds left. Kevin Pangos missed a jumper and Mike Hart was mauled on the rebound without a call. And then Dellavedova took Harris to the basket and got two free throws. Now it was a one-point GU lead, 79-78, with 15 seconds left.

Saint Mary’s fouled Olynyk with 13.1 seconds on the clock, and he hit both. Dellavedova took a quick step on the defense of Gary Bell and launched a three that would’ve tied it, but it glanced over the backboard, and Gonzaga (16-1) had a most harrowing victory.

It looked like it could be easy, when, early in the second half, the GU students were chanting, “Up by 20” as the Zags opened the lead to 48-28. But, mostly without star point Dellavedova on the floor, Saint Mary’s crawled back into it, largely on the offense of Holt.

Gonzaga got out quickly, as Kevin Pangos’ three-point play with 15:48 left put the hosts ahead 9-2.

The Zags stayed several points ahead, but Holt nailed a three to bring the Gaels within 27-22.

That’s when Gonzaga began to put it in overdrive, embarking on a 19-6 run to lead it 46-28 at the break.

Defensively, the challenge was the Gaels’ Australian Olympian, point guard Matthew Dellavedova, and Gonzaga made out well at that end as well, using Gary Bell and Mike Hart on him primarily and doubling him with a big man, which prompted Dellavedova to rely on dishing to teammates.

That was scantly successful.

Holt had eight points at the half and sub Beau Levesque seven (and three fouls in a mere four minutes), but the Zags had to be ecstatic about the job on Dellavedova, who went 2 for 8 from the field for five points, with two assists.