So, like many others anticipating the start of the Gonzaga - St Mary's WCC championship game at the Orleans Casino in Las Vegas, I wondered how effective will Patty Mills be. Can he help the Gaels hit the jackpot and lead them out of Sin City with a championship and an automatic bid? Or will he roll snake eyes and St Mary's would have to rest their last chips on a charitable NCAA Selection Committee?
Well if the warmups were any indication, and alas they eventually were, it was going to be a long night for the Gaels on ESPN. During warmups, Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan suffered a brain cramp and dunked, which is a violation, resulting in a technical foul and free throws. So before the tip, Matt Bouldin, the second coming of Dan Majerle, shot two free throws, hitting only one and the Zags were up 1-0 before the teams lined up for the ball toss.
It seems that St Mary's was dazed as a result or perhaps it was the immediate Gonzaga assault on the scoreboard. Barely two minutes in and the Gaels were down 8-0, then 11-2 as Micah Downs, Josh Heytvelt, Stephen Gray and Austin Daye all took turns scoring. St Mary's would come back to cut it to 17-13 as Diamon Simpson and Samhan scored all 13 of the Gaels points (a tell tale sign of things to come). The lead would swell back to nine, 24-15, as Bouldin channeled Majerle and hit a long three.
The Gaels would cut the lead to five, 27-22 with five minutes left on a Mickey McConnell three but that's as close as they would ever come for the rest of the game. The Zags would finish on a 11-3 run punctuated by a three point play by Heytvelt. As the mostly pro Gonzaga crowd was whipped into a frenzy like at a Wayne Newton Concert (hey this is a Vegas themed column), the Gaels stared at a 38-25 halftime deficit, an empty wallet and a bus ticket back to Moraga, California.
Gonzaga came out and didn't score on their first three possessions. The Gaels scored the first four points of the half to cut it to nine but needed two three throws and Patty Mills to hit one of four shots to do so. Gonzaga played the role of the house and immediately dashed the hopes of whatever Gaels fans' were there at the Orleans with a 10-1 run to go up 48-30. The Gaels would never get closer than 17 points the rest of the way as the Zags cruised to an 85-58 win. Not exactly the score you want if you're St Mary's in front of a national audience including some NCAA committee members.
The stats were telling. Patty Mills and the St Mary's guards rolled snake eyes all night. Mills shot an awful 2 of 16 from the field for five points and was clearly cognizant of his recently healed broken hand. The rest of the guards shot an underwhelming 5 of 17. Only Samhan and Simpson kept the Gaels in the game with 36 points and 18 rebounds.
Much of the credit for the Gaels off night should go to the best field goal percentage defensive team in the country, Gonzaga, who held St Mary's to 28.8 percent from the field. On the offensive end, the Zags smoked the Gaels, shooting 54.8 percent from the field including 9 of 18 from three. Six Zags had double figures led by Heytvelt's 17 points and Majerle Bouldin's 14. Tournament MVP Downs had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Gray had 10 points, Jeremy Pargo 10, and Demetri Goodson added 11.
While the Gaels were getting torched more than Foster Brooks in an open bar, a barnburner was brewing over on ESPN2 as Niagara and Siena battled for the MAAC Championship. The semifinal games that Siena and Niagara played on Sunday were as far apart as you can get. Siena was up by as many as 28 before coasting to a 15 point win over Fairfield as the Saints rested most of their players at the end. Meanwhile in the second semifinal, Niagara needed a prayer of a three point bank shot by Tyrone Lewis just to tie Rider, then endured two overtimes to beat the Broncs 93-89. Four Purple Eagles played 44 minutes or more during that game.
So, you would think a relatively fresh Siena team would come out and roll over a dog tired Niagara, especially considering that both teams love an up and down pace. Would this be the fourth of four routs?
However, both teams had split the season series and this looked like the best matchup of the night. It was Ali and Frazier, the third time, the Thrilla in Manila, with an Albany flavor. And it lived up to the billing.
Niagara looked like the team that won in regulation the night before as the Purple Eagles jumped out with jabs to a 15-5 lead. But just like a champion prizefighter that was wobbled by a series of would be knockout punches, the Saints stormed back with uppercuts of their own. Siena went on a 22-6 run and went up 27-21. The Purple Eagles though came back with left hooks of their own as Demetrius Williamson nailed two threes to tie the game at 33 at the half.
Then came the second half. Both teams would trade equal blows to each other. For the first eleven minutes, Siena would have a lead no larger than four points. Niagara would never have a lead during this time. But four times, Niagara came back and tied the game. The last of which was at 50 all with nine minutes left. Then Siena called timeout. And then it happened. Siena nailed Niagara with several body blows, with the 19-6 run culminated by a Ryan Rossiter right hook layup. Only 3:29 remained after the five minute carnage with the score 69-56 Siena.
Niagara, led by Bilal Benn and Lewis, like Frazier made on last frenzied comeback. A 14-6 run was capped by a Lewis three point right hook put the Purple Eagles down five, 75-70. But only
15 seconds remained. Kenny Hasbrouck who was downright dominant in the second half would hit one free throw and Ronald Moore's free throw would seal the scoring for the Saints. A hard fought 77-70 unanimous decision for Siena.
Hasbrouck led Siena with 19. Rossiter and Alex Frankin each had 16 with Rossiter adding 14 rebounds. Lewis led the way with 22 points. However, the night before claimed a victim as Bilal Benn shot an unseemly 2 of 15 from the field for six points, eight under his average. Thus Siena moves on with the automatic bid, thus easing the minds of bubble teams everywhere. Meanwhile Niagara will likely play in the NIT, lurking in the shadows waiting to knock off a mediocre major conference team.