The last time Gonzaga stepped foot inside Jenny Craig Pavilion, they exited amid a flurry of court-rushing Torero faithful in last years’ thrilling West Coast Conference championship.
The Bulldogs returned hungry Saturday in seek of an unprecedented third 14-0 West Coast Conference title.
Fresh off avenging an earlier loss with a 66-60 victory over Portland Thursday, San Diego traded shots with No. 17 Gonzaga early on, but Torero fans were held in their seats this time around as the Bulldogs proved to be too deep and too much in a 58-47 defeat.
A USD victory or a Portland win at Santa Clara would have secured the No. 4 seed and first round bye in the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas this weekend. But Santa Clara slipped past Portland 65-63 in overtime, setting up a Friday night match-up for the Toreros against Loyola Marymount (3-27, 2-12 WCC).
The Zags—who clinched the No. 1 tournament seed and a bye into the semifinal round with a victory at LMU Feb 19—completed their third sweep of the WCC in the past six seasons.
With momentum building and a 15-10 advantage midway through the first half for San Diego (15-15, 6-8 WCC), the pendulum quickly swung once Jeremy Pargo, the 2008 WCC Player of the Year, converted two consecutive steals at half court into buckets at the other end. The thefts led to a 10-0 run for the Zags from which the Toreros would never recover.
“That’s a dang good team,” San Diego coach Bill Grier said. “You have to play darn near perfect to beat them.”
Grier would know after serving as an assistant coach at Gonzaga for 16 years, including the final eight seasons as a top assistant, before taking over the Toreros' job last season.
The Zags (23-5, 14-0 WCC) held USD to 18 points in the first half and the Toreros' shooting percentages for the game were 37.2 overall (16-for-43), 31.3 from three-point range (5-for-16) and 66.7 (10-for-15) from the free-throw line
“There’s a reason why they are the No. 1 defensive field-goal-percentage team in the country,” Grier said. “They are so long and when they start switching we can’t get clean looks making it very tough to score.”
“A big point in that game,” Grier said, “was when Pargo got back-to-back steals. It really changed the momentum and we just weren’t able to steer the ship back in our direction offensively.”
The USD faithful gave their farewell to Gyno Pomare, the all-time leader in points and rebounds, with a standing ovation as he exited the floor before the end of regulation for the last time.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario other than winning,” Pomare said of his last home game. “I’ve spent a lot of years here at USD, I’m going to miss it.”
Pomare and junior guard De’Jon Jackson, the only Toreros in double figures, had 12 points apiece. Four Zags reached double figures, led by junior guard Matt Bouldins’ 15.
Jackson, who also had six rebounds and five assists, continues to shoulder the load for San Diego in the absence of guards Brandon Johnson (injury) and Trumaine Johnson (transfer).
“We stayed close to them until they got a couple of turnovers and got on a roll,” Jackson said. “Usually Gonzaga scores into the 70s, but we held them to 58, so I think if we knock down shots and don't make turnovers that give them dunks and layups, we've got a chance to beat them.”
It would take two WCC tournament wins for USD to get another shot at Gonzaga. But it was not a lost week for the Toreros, by any means, as Thursday’s victory over second place Portland (18-11, 9-5 WCC) gives them considerable momentum as they head to Las Vegas.
Jackson, who made the move over to the point guard spot just four games ago, turned in another solid effort, tossing in 13 points to along with a game-high six assists and only one turnover in 35 minutes of action.
Jackson also completed the task of limiting Pilots point guard T.J. Campbell, averaging 11.4 points and 5 assists, to six points and three assists.
“Coach told me this is my time to take over the team. This is a big part of my life, I live for it and I'm enjoying it,” Jackson said.
“I'm real comfortable right now handling the ball and finding my teammates when they get open. That's what me and Coach have been talking about a lot – taking care of the ball and playing as a team.”
Playing one of its more efficient halves of the season, USD opened as much as a 12-point lead in the first 12 minutes of the game and went to the halftime break with a 31-24 advantage.
Sophomore guard Matt Dorr led the Toreros in scoring with 17 points and provided the necessary perimeter shooting to keep the Pilots defense honest. Dorr hit his first three shots, two of them three-pointers, as USD built its first-half cushion.
Another Dorr three-pointer and his 6-for-6 shooting from the free throw line in the second half helped turn back Portland after the Pilots (18-10, 9-4) had tied things up in the first six minutes of the second half.
“Starting with the way we played in our loss to St. Mary’s (65-61), we have taken a more mature approach which has built some confidence and it has shown in our past few games as we head to Las Vegas,” Grier said.
San Diego now faces the gauntly task of winning four games in four nights in the conference tournament to successfully defend their WCC Tournament title.
Entering tournament play last season, the Toreros were not given a fighting chance. Yet, they find themselves in familiar territory again this year.
“Everyone in our locker room wants to play right now but we have to wait,” Jackson said. “We all still want to take the conference tournament and everybody’s’ still believing.”