The Gaels were dead.
After a woeful first half in which they made just 10 of 26 shots, they began the second half with more offensive flow. But so did Gonzaga, and at the 13:17 mark the Zags had increased their eight-point half-time lead to 15 and led 50-35.
Domantas Sabonis, the Zags 6-11 center, was having his way, scoring almost at will on a variety of short jumpers and baby hooks. The Gaels’ vaunted two-man post tandem of Jock Landale and Dane Pineau was ineffective, almost invisible. There was simply no way to avoid a ninth-straight loss to the indomitable Zags.
Then the Gaels found a way, and launched one of the most incredible comebacks in school history to pull out a 70-67 win. A standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 berserk fans shook McKeon Pavilion to its foundation, creating a cauldron of noise in the final minutes that can only be appreciated by someone who has experienced it. It is a whiteout of noise, an impenetrable wall of sound that makes communicating to the person next to you impossible.
The comeback rolled out in two phases, first on a six-minute semi-blitz that reduced the Zags’ lead from 15 to seven, 58-51, with 7:18 left in the game. The leader, unaccountably, was Pineau, suddenly coming alive in the paint with two big buckets. He first scored on a left-hand lay-up against the hulking Sabonis, then went over his right shoulder again against Ryan Edwards, the Zags’ 7-1 back-up center.
Joe Rahon continued his harassing attack on Sabonis, making one of his three steals and finding Emmett Naar up-court. Naar got lost in the defensive scramble caused by the steal and slipped in for a lay-up. Then came two sequences that defined the Gaels’ resolute determination not to lose. After Kyle Wiltjer, the Zags’ leading scorer and one of the dominating offensive players in the country, made a short jumper at the 8:25 mark — his last points of the game (6) — Calvin Hermanson answered for the Gaels with a gritty three-pointer from the top of the key.
The Zags’ Kyle Dranginis, having a career night (13 points) along with Eric McCllelan (23 points), paid Hermanson back with a driving lay-up, but Naar gave the edge back to Saint Mary’s with another three-pointer. That brought the game to 58-51, and both sides caught their breath for the final push.
The Zags struck first, going back up by 10 on a Dranginis three-pointer, but the Gaels dug in on defense and started getting stops. The first of seven stops in the final minutes came thanks to McClellan, who lost his dribble to Naar. What seemed like a golden opportunity to rattle the Zags came to naught, however, when Kyle Clark missed a driving lay-up off the Naar steal. Never mind, as Clark caused a shot clock violation on the Zags’ next possession by deflecting a pass to Dranginis. Pineau cashed that one in with a right-hand lay-up over Wiltjer, moving the score to 61-55.
Then Josh Perkins, the Zags’ embattled point guard, tossed a pass into the back court for another unforced turnover, setting the stage for one of the defining plays of the crucial last minutes. Evan Fitzner, the Gaels’ redshirt freshman who gets partial credit for the clamp-down on Wiltjer (Clark gets the rest), beat Sabonis off the dribble and crashed into the paint. He was grabbed by McClellan but brushed that off and finished with a difficult runner. He sank the ensuing free throw to move the Gaels within three, 61-58, with 4:47 left.
McClellan, a defensive specialist not known for his scoring, gave the Zags life by sinking a dagger three-pointer on the next possession, giving his team a six-point cushion. Then came a sequence of Rahon brilliance that will rival Gael moments of glory such as Patty Mills’ three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Santa Clara and Matthew Dellavedova’s half-court heave to bring down BYU.
Rahon immediately answered McClellan’s three-pointer with one of his own, to get the deficit back to three. He then stole the ball from Sabonis’ hands once again, leading to a lay-up by Fitzner that cut the score to 64-63. After defending Perkins on a drive, Rahon snagged the rebound and headed up-court. He then took Perkins into the lane and gave the Gaels a 65-64 lead with 2:42 left. McKeon rocked as it has seldom rocked before.
From then on it was all defense, as the Gaels recorded consecutive stops. The second was another instant classic, as Clark stepped into the lane to meet a driving Wiltjer, who got by Fitzner for one of the few times in the game. Clark took a Wiltjer elbow to the forehead, but was rewarded with a charging call on the Zag ace and a nasty scrape that had to be tended to on the sidelines.
The icing came on two plays by Fitzner, whose brilliance should guarantee he doesn’t endure any more benchings like the five-minute stretch he suffered at the beginning of the Gaels’ final push. He is simply too valuable to be sitting in crunch time. Following Clark’s stop on the charge by Wiltjer, Fitzner shook off Sabonis and Naar found him for a lay-up that moved the Gaels ahead 67-64 with 1:22 left.
That final 1:22 won’t go into the Gaels’ time capsule, but offsetting blunders gave Saint Mary’s the win. After Sabonis cut the led to two on a play that fouled out the heroic Pineau, Dranginis scored on a driving lay-up to tie it at 67-all. Rahon calmly dribbled up-court with 20 seconds left, picked up Sabonis on a switch and drove the big man. Zag fans will complain for eons that the resulting foul call on Sabonis was a cheapie, and, indeed, contact was slight. But a foul was called nevertheless.
Gael fans had an immediate flashback to Rahon’s misstep against Cal earlier this year, when he went to the line for a one-and-one opportunity with his team trailing by two. He clanked the front end of that one, but against the Zags he had a guaranteed two attempts because the Gaels were in a bonus situation. Rahon seemed to exorcise the ghosts of Cal by sinking his first free throw to move the Gaels ahead 68-67, but missed the second and the Zags rebounded with a little more than six seconds left.
Then came a boneheaded play for the ages, as Rahon — hearing a call from the Gaels’ bench to foul McClellan as he headed up-court — did so emphatically. That would have been good strategy if the Gaels had a foul to give, but they didn’t. McClellan was awarded a one-and-one opportunity that could have put the Zags in the lead with about three seconds left, but he clanked the front end and Fitzner sank two free throws after being fouled on the rebound. Rahon looked toward the heavens in recognition of the blessing he had received.
For on that night at least, God was a Gael for sure.
Evan Fitzner, shown above in an earlier game against UC Irvine, led the Gaels with 20 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.