LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga looked unstoppable for nearly 35 minutes, its free-flowing offense creating open shots, the defense smothering San Francisco at every turn.
The final five minutes turned into a grind as the Dons ratcheted up the intensity.
The Zags are headed back to the West Coast Conference tournament title game, but it got much tougher than they expected after building a massive lead.
Drew Timme scored 27 points, Chet Holmgren added 17, and top-ranked Gonzaga reached the WCC championship game for the 25th straight year by holding off San Francisco 81-71 Monday night.
“It’s just what we do — that’s Zag basketball,” Timme said. “We just kind of got away from it and got back to doing what we do best.”
The Zags (25-3) worked the ball into the paint early and often, pushing around the smaller Dons while racing to a 24-point second-half lead. San Francisco (24-9) mounted a late comeback, pulling within eight while holding Gonzaga without a field goal over the final 5:33.
The Zags made four free throws down the stretch to win its 14th straight opening WCC tournament game. Andrew Nembhard had 17 points and nine assists while leading Gonzaga’s offense. Holmgren had seven rebounds and blocked six shots.
Gonzaga will face St. Mary’s in the tournament title game for the fifth time in seven years.
Khalil Shabazz scored nine of his 27 points during a 13-2 run that got San Francisco back in it, and Julian Rishwain added 20.
“I was really proud of the way the guys battled and didn’t cash in,” Dons coach Todd Golden said. “There’s no moral victories, but a 10-point loss to these guys isn’t the end of the world.”
Golden has led a quick turnaround at San Francisco, putting the Dons on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament since 1998 in his third season. San Francisco is No. 24 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and is one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams, led by the sharp-shooting Jamaree Bouyea.
A win over Gonzaga would have been a huge boost, but the Dons knew it wouldn’t be easy. The Zags lead the nation in scoring, are third in defensive field goal percentage and won the two regular-season meetings by 16 points each.
The Dons had no answer for Timme and Holmgren during the regular season and it was even worse early in the WCC semifinals.
Gonzaga pounded the ball inside to Timme at the start and the mustachioed big man with Vegas show-like footwork danced around the Dons for nine points in the first four minutes.
Holmgren showed off his rare skill set early, shaking a defender with a spin in the lane for a two-handed dunk and dropping in an early offense 3-pointer. He added an all-too-easy alley-oop dunk to give the Zags an 11-point lead in the first six minutes.
Timme had 12 points, Holmgren 11 and Gonzaga had 34 points in the paint to lead 51-32 at halftime.
Holmgren also wreaked havoc on defense, blocking four shots and altering several others while helping the Zags hold San Francisco to 10-of-33 shooting, including 4 for 19 from 3.
“Having Chet back there is such a great advantage to have,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
San Francisco had a much better offensive flow in the second half, particularly after Holmgren went to the bench with his third foul. But the Dons had a hard time putting a dent in Gonzaga’s lead as the Zags kept making shots.
San Francisco gradually chipped away at Gonzaga’s 24-point lead, then went on a 16-4 run to pull within 79-71 with 1:32 left. The Dons ran out of time to finish off the comeback, but can take some confidence from playing so well down the stretch.
“We’re never going to quit, regardless of whether we’re down by 30 or not,” Shabazz said. “We’re going to play until the clock hits 0.0 and that’s what we did today.”
San Francisco: Looked shaky while falling into the big early hole, but more like an NCAA Tournament team with its late rally against the nation’s No. 1 team.
Gonzaga: Dominated at both ends early and held on after faltering late to keep its streak of WCC tournament finals alive. The Zags are now one win away from their ninth WCC tournament title in 10 years.
Bouyea was named first team all WCC after averaging 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He found no room against the Zags in the WCC semifinals, finishing with five points on 1-of-11 shooting, including 0 for 7 from 3.
“With him coming off so many ball screens and us switching up coverages, I think it kind of threw him off,” Nembhard said.
San Francisco: Awaits word if its resume is good enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga: Faces Saint Mary’s in Tuesday’s championship game.
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