MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Once Gonzaga picked up its energy on defense, the Bulldogs started playing like the No. 1 team in the country.
Josh Perkins scored 19 points and Brandon Clarke sparked a big second-half run with strong play on both ends of the court to help No. 1 Gonzaga wrap up a perfect conference regular season with a 69-55 victory over Saint Mary’s on Saturday night.
“We got back to playing defense the way we’re capable of,” coach mark Few said. “We did our assignments a lot better than we did in the first half. Every time we screwed up a detail in our defense, Saint Mary’s made us pay. In the second half, we were a little tighter and played with good energy. The defense got us going and got us out running. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Clarke had six points during the game-changing 17-0 spurt in the second half that sent the Bulldogs (29-2, 16-0 West Coast Conference) to another lopsided win, extending the nation’s longest winning streak to 20 games.
Clarke also had three blocks during that stretch and influenced several others as Gonzaga proved to be far too tough for its fiercest conference rival and sealed its fifth perfect conference record in the regular season.
“I feel like in the first half we were lax and lazy,” Clarke said. “We picked it up in the second half. … Defense is the best offense. If I can get a block and we can go out and get an easy layup, it’s really good for the team.”
Jordan Ford scored 19 points to lead the Gaels (20-11, 11-5). They went nearly eight minutes without scoring in the second half.
Saint Mary’s cut the deficit to 47-44 when Tanner Krebbs scored on a layup with 12:07 to play. The Gaels fell behind by 20 points before scoring again on a basket by Jock Perry with 4:21 remaining.
“They’re a very good team, very good,” coach Randy Bennett said. “One of the best teams that I’ve coached against for sure. I can’t remember one better unless it was Gonzaga two years ago. They are very good. We did a good job in the first half, competed, then we came out in the second half and I didn’t think our guards got us good shots, and we let it snowball.”
Rui Hachimura had 17 points for the Bulldogs and Clarke finished with 15 points and four blocked shots.
Gonzaga broke out to an 11-2 lead early to silence the overflow crowd before the Gaels responded by making seven of their next eight shots to take a 21-19 lead on a 3-pointer by Ford.
The Bulldogs led 36-34 at the half after Filip Petrusev hit a fall-away jumper at the buzzer.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs finished the conference season barely getting tested. They outscored the opposition by 27 points per game to set a WCC record and haven’t played a game decided by single digits since losing 76-73 at Tennessee on Dec. 9. Gonzaga trailed in the second half in just two games all conference season for a total of 42 seconds. Things figure to get tougher when the NCAA tournament starts later this month.
“To go out there and sweep the conference is big,” Perkins said. “We have to take that momentum to Vegas.”
Saint Mary’s: After losing the first meeting by 48 points in the most lopsided loss since Bennett arrived at Saint Mary’s in 2001, the Gaels looked like they would be overwhelmed again after the slow start. But they responded and stayed close until the second-half drought that featured six missed shots, six turnovers and two missed free throws. The loss dropped Saint Mary’s to 1-35 all-time against top 10 teams, with the only win coming against Villanova in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
Gonzaga: WCC semifinals in Las Vegas on March 11.
Saint Mary’s: WCC semifinals in Las Vegas on March 11.
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