Zags hang on to beat USF, 71-61

Zags Renew Rivalry With UW

SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Few felt uneasy until the final buzzer sounded.

After three years of last-second shots and steals that always seemed to go San Francisco’s way, the Gonzaga coach had seen too many leads at War Memorial Gymnasium evaporate. Almost happened again, too.

Kelly Olynyk had 26 points and nine rebounds, and Elias Harris added 17 points and 13 rebounds to carry No. 5 Gonzaga past pesky San Francisco 71-61 on Saturday, snapping a three-game losing streak on The Hilltop.

“We’ve had some crazy things happened to us in here,” Few said. “They banked a shot from the baseline. We saved a ball up three, game over on a rebound and then threw it right to their guy so they could make a 3. It’s been about three or four others things. All that being said, it comes down to them playing with fantastic effort to put themselves in position to win and make big shots.”

Gonzaga weathered another strong — but brief — shooting display while its fierce frontcourt tandem bullied and bruised their way to a fast start and a furious finish. Olynyk finished 13 for 17 from the floor, Harris made 7-of-15 shots and both highlighted an 11-0 run in the final minutes that put the Bulldogs (25-2, 12-0 West Coast Conference) ahead for good.

“There might be a little magic in this building or something,” Olynyk said. “We needed that to keep our run going. It’s huge. We haven’t won here the last three years. Since I’ve been here, we’d never won here. It’s a big-time win here. We’ve got to keep that going and finish off this conference.”

Cole Dickerson scored 15 points and Cody Doolin added 14 to help the Dons (11-15, 4-9) erase a 15-point first half deficit. Unlike the last three seasons when USF stunned Gonzaga at home, though, the Bulldogs’ big men regrouped to overwhelm the diminutive Dons when it mattered most.

“It was, unfortunately, men playing against boys,” USF coach Rex Walters said.

Gonzaga was the highest-ranked team to visit The Hilltop in 44 years. The Dons haven’t defeated a top-5 team since March 23, 1956, when they downed fifth-ranked Iowa 83-71 to claim their second straight national title behind Bill Russell.

The Dons had defeated Gonzaga each of the last three seasons in San Francisco, including twice in overtime before winning 66-65 last season on Rashad Green’s floater in the lane with 3.3 seconds remaining. Yet, Gonzaga has won 24 straight over USF in Spokane, including a 66-52 victory Jan. 28.

Something about The Hilltop seems to give Gonzaga headaches.

The Zags sure seemed ready at the start, powering past the Dons with three quick dunks. That didn’t even include perhaps the prettiest play: Mike Hart lofting a halfcourt alley-oop that Olynyk laid up off the glass over a defender.

Olynyk, Harris and the rest of the Zags harassed the Dons on defense, too, keeping most everything on the perimeter. Olynyk added another layup to cap Gonzaga’s 19-4 run to open the game.

“We definitely didn’t want this one coming down to the end again,” Harris said.

USF’s shooters finally started to find their stroke before the break, much the same way they had at home against the Bulldogs the past three seasons. Mark Tollefsen, Avry Holmes, Tim Derksen and Dickerson each hit a 3-pointer during a brief burst of offense that sliced Gonzaga’s lead to 30-25 late in the first half.

Dickerson swished another from beyond the arc to tie the score at 45 with 10:36 remaining. He waved his hands in the air while running down court, sending the home fans into a flurry for the frantic finish.

Gonzaga fans who sprinkled the stands in blue made most of the noise the rest of the way.

Olynyk converted three layups during an 11-0 spurt that put Gonzaga ahead 63-52 with 3:37 to play. He made his presence felt on both ends, and added a breakaway two-handed slam in the waning seconds to punctuate the victory.

After a 77-60 win across the bay at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night, the Bulldogs took a big step this weekend toward taking back the conference title that the Gaels wrestled away from them a year ago. They’ve already convinced most in the West Coast Conference that they deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“Physically,” Walters said, “they’re a Final Four-caliber team.”