11:59 PM ET, March 8, 2004
Leavey Center, Santa Clara, California
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- Every time Saint Mary's seemed to be edging close to a huge upset of Gonzaga, Ronny Turiaf was there to snatch it away.Turiaf matched his career highs with 29 points and 14 rebounds and No. 3 Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference tournament for the fifth time in six seasons, beating Saint Mary's 84-71 Monday night. Blake Stepp scored 19 points and Cory Violette had 16 for the Bulldogs (27-2), who won their 20th straight game with dominant inside play and a decisive late run against the Gaels. Rallying nicely from a sub-par game against Santa Clara one night earlier, Turiaf seemed to outjump his opponents for every big rebound while scoring 15 points in the second half. The Bulldogs finally shook Saint Mary's in the final minutes, with Turiaf contributing five points and a key rebound. "We're ready to play somebody else," said Turiaf, the tournament MVP. "It's good to be done with the conference tournament. It feels like we just played this same team three times. We're ready to play somebody else." Turiaf, one of the first Bulldogs to pull on a championship T-shirt before cutting down the net, also danced with his MVP trophy. With nearly 1,600 Spokane fans cheering at the Leavey Center, Gonzaga also capped its undefeated season in conference play by beating Saint Mary's for the 17th straight time. The Bulldogs haven't lost since last Dec. 20 to Stanford, and their fans chanted "Undefeated!" in the final minute. The West Coast tournament's top two seeds must win just two games to earn the automatic NCAA bid, but Gonzaga still got a good taste of postseason tension. The Bulldogs trailed for most of their semifinal matchup with host Santa Clara on Sunday night before rallying for a 63-62 win on Turiaf's rebound basket with five seconds to play. "I was really worried about us being emotionally spent after last night," coach Mark Few said. "That was tough. We were warriors. Saint Mary's showed a lot of courage. They kept making runs." Earlier in the day, Gonzaga reached the highest ranking in school history, moving up one spot from last week _ and two tough tourney victories should keep the Bulldogs on track for a high seed in the NCAA tournament. They've lost the conference tournament just once since 1999: San Diego beat them in the final last season. Frederic Adjiwanou scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half for Saint Mary's (19-12), which trailed throughout the second half but never let Gonzaga get comfortable. The Gaels got within 70-66 on E.J. Rowland's free throws with 5:01 to play, but Tony Skinner hit a 3-pointer and Turiaf made a three-point play. Rowland also had 16 points for the Gaels, who beat Pepperdine in the semifinals. Saint Mary's enjoyed a resurgent season under third-year coach Randy Bennett, but fell just short of the fourth NCAA tournament bid in the program's 93-year history. "We caught (Turiaf) on the wrong night," Bennett said. "We should have played him last night. ... We kept coming, got that thing down, but couldn't get over the hump. Turiaf had too many answers for us." The Gaels mostly controlled Stepp, the conference's player of the year, but Turiaf and Violette were practically unstoppable in the first half, claiming eight of the Bulldogs' 12 offensive rebounds. Gonzaga went ahead 27-19 when freshman Derek Raivio stole a pass and got it to Turiaf, who took one dribble and leaped from just inside the free-throw line for a backboard-shaking dunk. Gonzaga led by 14 late in the first half, but Saint Mary's got within five with 18:24 to play on Rowland's layup. The Bulldogs scored the next nine points, but Adjiwanou kept the Gaels in it with superb inside play. "I think we kind of built off how we ended last night," Stepp said. "We built off that emotion."
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