LAS VEGAS (AP)Saint Mary’s played the first 25 minutes Monday night like a team capable of winning the West Coast Conference Tournament and making a deep run in the NCAAs.
Then the 16th-ranked Gaels almost blew it.
They let a 26-point lead get down to three before holding off BYU to win 76-69 and advance to their fourth WCC title game in five years.
“I think we lost focus a little bit,” coach Randy Bennett said. “They got some momentum and (that) gave them some hope. We were really good for 25 minutes. We need to get a lot better at closing out things.”
The Gaels (26-6) will play No. 9 Gonzaga on Tuesday night looking for their first tournament championship since 2019. The rival Bulldogs beat San Francisco 84-73 in the second semifinal.
BYU (19-15) will wait to see if the NIT has a spot. The Cougars have a NET ranking of No. 85, so they are at best on the bubble. If they don’t make the postseason, this was their last game as a WCC team; the program joins the Big 12 Conference next season.
Alex Ducas led Saint Mary’s with 23 points, Aidan Mahaney scored 18, Mitchell Saxen had 12 and Logan Johnson 10.
Spencer Johnson led BYU with 13 points, Richie Saunders scored 11 and Rudi Williams added 10.
It was BYU’s first loss on a neutral court this season after going 7-0, including 3-0 in Las Vegas. The Cougars beat then-No. 21 Creighton in November and won their first two games of this tournament.
Both regular-season games between Saint Mary’s and BYU were close, with the Gaels winning them by a combined seven points.
The third meeting looked like a runaway early. Saint Mary’s went an 11-1 spurt to go up 20-8 and ended the first half with a five-point possession thanks to a dead-ball technical to go into halftime ahead 37-20.
BYU also went into a cold spell, going scoreless between a basket from Jaxson Robinson with 4:54 left in the first half until Spencer Johnson’s layup 11 seconds into the second period.
Saint Mary’s went ahead by 26 in the second half before the Cougars put together a 10-point run, cutting the deficit to 56-40. The Gaels played the remainder of the game as if they couldn’t wait for Tuesday, and BYU went on a nine-point spurt to get to 64-56 with 4:50 left.
“It’s who our guys have been all year,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “They care about each other and care about winning. There have been times we haven’t performed well this year and these guys come back.”
The Cougars got within 72-69 with 32.1 seconds to go before Kyle Bowen made a fast-break layup and Mahaney sank a free throw to give Saint Mary’s some breathing room again.
“It shows a lot of experience from the guys and maturity,” Ducas said of finding a way in the end. “It was not the way we wanted to win, but we’ll take it.”
BYU: This being the final WCC event for the Cougars, they clearly need an upgrade if they’re going to compete in the Big 12. They are young, with seven players on the roster freshmen or sophomores, but landing a couple of top players in the transfer portal will be crucial.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels played far from a perfect game. They went more than five minutes in the second half without a field goal, and missed 13 free throws. Saint Mary’s was on its heels after BYU went on a 10-point run. That sort of play could easily result in a loss in the WCC championship game or NCAA Tournament.
Saint Mary’s will play for seeding in the NCAA Tournament when it faces Gonzaga. The teams split two regular-season meetings.
BYU will wait to see if the NIT comes calling or perhaps another tournament such as the CBI, if the Cougars would even entertain a bid.
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