Updated Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 04:48 PM
SPOKANE — In the latest sequel to their taut little rivalry, there was a twist. Gonzaga, even as it had just a single loss through some rugged early weeks of the college basketball season and had risen to No. 8 in the coaches poll, was chasing Saint Mary's.
It was the Gaels, of course, who wrested the West Coast Conference title, regular-season and tournament, away from the Zags a year ago, scissoring GU's 11-year run on the former distinction.
There was some thinking that maybe this Gonzaga team was good enough that the upstart Saint Mary's had finally been put in its place. If so, you wouldn't know it from the proceedings Thursday night at the Kennel, where Gonzaga panted, wheezed and gasped to the finish line, 83-78 victors over the gutty Gaels.
"We played fantastically in the first half and they played fantastically in the second," said Mark Few, Gonzaga's coach. "I've played and watched Saint Mary's enough to know that there's no quit."
At half, it was Gonzaga, 46-28, and it was going to be a Sunday drive the rest of the way. They were dominating inside with Kelly Olynyk (17 points by intermission), double-teaming the gifted Gaels point guard, Matthew Dellavedova, to exasperation (2 of 8, five points), and they were shooting 58 percent to Saint Mary's 31.
As Gonzaga (16-1) huddled up for the second half, you could sense a casualness. It wasn't only on the floor.
Fifteen seconds into the second half, the Zags students were chanting, "Up by 20."
But soon, it wasn't 20, it was 15. And then 10, and shortly, the crowd was stunned into submission.
Saint Mary's doesn't do fainthearted well, it turned out.
"It wasn't a good halftime," confessed Randy Bennett, the SMC coach, "if I'm challenging our bigs about toughness and competing, which I did. I didn't like that at all."
The first half showed you that Gonzaga just might be the team pundits are seeing as one that could make a big run in March. If the second half didn't remind you that the Zags have a chronic problem guarding good backcourts, it at least served notice that the Gaels (13-4) are again a bear to defend, spreading the floor with shooters and Dellavedova holding the joystick.
"We had some guys step up," said Bennett. "(Guard Stephen) Holt was the leader of the whole deal. We competed better, we defended better."
A pall was falling over the Kennel. Holt's three with 12:05 left got the margin back to 10, 59-49, and the Gaels kept snipping. Beau Levesque's trey with 6:11 left made it 67-64, GU.
As good as Olynyk was with 31 points, he also had some key mistakes — fumbling the ball and misfiring from short range. Dellavedova drove on Elias Harris and hit two free throws with 15 seconds left and cut the deficit to 79-78.
Olynyk responded with two free throws two seconds later, but in the denouement, Dellavedova made a quick move to fool Gary Bell Jr., and cast up a three with eight seconds left that was going to tie the fool thing and send it to overtime. Instead, it clanged over the backboard, and Gonzaga had a victory that was more harrowing than telltale.
Olynyk has been everybody's player of the week/fortnight/month, and Bennett paid his respects. Referring to the big guy's production before his redshirt season a year ago, Bennett said, "I remember him. I didn't think he was very good. He's improved better than anybody in college basketball."
For his part, Few wasn't about to look askance at a victory, hairbreadth though it was.
"I told our team they've done a heck of a job to get to 16-1," he said. "They've had emotional game after emotional game after emotional game."
Right he is, especially when the 16 includes one over Saint Mary's.
Gonzaga @ Portland,
7 p.m., ROOT Sports