LAS VEGAS (AP) — New season. Same story.
Saint Mary’s is headed to the West Conference Tournament championship, where it’ll meet an old friend.
Jordan Ford scored 21 points and the Gaels beat San Diego 69-62 on Monday night in the semifinals, propelling them into Tuesday’s final against Gonzaga.
Saint Mary’s (21-11) will meet the top-ranked Bulldogs in the championship game for the eighth time in 11 years. The Gaels are 2-5 in the previous meetings, with their last championship coming in 2012.
The Gaels used a 13-4 run in the second half to steal momentum from the scrappy Toreros, who were playing in their first tournament semifinal since 2013.
“I thought it was one heck of a game,” said coach Randy Bennett, whose Gaels improved to 53-36 all-time against San Diego. “I know we played well … got some separation, hit two or three 3s in the first half. (San Diego’s) Isaiah Wright hit a big 3 down the stretch there. They’re a really good team. We had a lot of our guys step up, a lot of guys made big plays for us, so it was a good team effot and we’re happy to get out with a win.”
Saint Mary’s, which swept the regular-season series with San Diego, winning by an average margin of 18.5 points, built a first-half lead to 10, but had its hands full with a team that was brewing with confidence after winning three games in three days to arrive in the semis.
San Diego pulled within two with 32 seconds remaining, but Tanner Krebs and Malik Fitts nailed five of six free throws for the Gaels down the stretch.
Both Krebs and Fitts were instrumental in leading the Gaels to a dominating performance in the paint, where they outscored San Diego 40-18.
“I think in every game, and not just in this game, we always like to be at penetration and me and (Tommy) Kuhse and Krebs and a lot of our guys are really good at getting in the paint and creating that basket,” Fitts said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that was the game plan.”
Fitts finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season, while Kuhse chipped in with 15 points.
The Gaels now have less than 24 hours to prepare for their biggest nemesis. Gonzaga swept the regular-season series, winning by 48 in Spokane and 14 on Saint Mary’s home court in the season finale on March 2.
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“I’m pretty confident that our guys will be ready to go,” Fitts said. “We know that this game tomorrow is a big game. It’s a championship game, so I know the guys, the coaching staff, everyone is going to be one hundred percent dialed in and ready to compete for that game.”
Wright had 22 points for San Diego (21-14). Toreros forward Isaiah Pineiro, who came in averaging 19.2 points and 9.5 rebounds, finished with 16 points and seven rebounds.
San Diego coach Sam Scholl and Wright both had their emotions on display in a postgame press conference.
“These guys were willing to take a chance three, four years ago and put everything into it and completely buy in and make something special and leave their mark on the world,” said Scholl, who needed a towel to wipe tears from his eyes. “Making a run like this is just setting an example of the way our program’s going to approach things here on out. So I just learned about the heart, about fight, and about the true certain attitude toward your teammates. They just wanted to see their teammates succeed.”
The Toreros had lost six straight tournament games heading into this year’s event. But their second-round win over Santa Clara secured the team’s second straight 20-win season — the first time the program has accomplished the feat since moving to Division I during the 1979-80 season.
The Gaels will need better production from their bench in the title game than they got Monday. Saint Mary’s used only two reserves against the Toreros and were outscored 7-0 with bench points. That’s a vast difference than Gonzaga’ semifinal romp over Pepperdine, as the Bulldogs reserves outscored the Waves, 29-13.
After the Toreros’ late-season push and strong showing in the WCC Tournament, they await their fate for a postseason invite.
The Gaels will face Gonzaga in Tuesday’s championship game.
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