With a rebound by Beau Levesque with 11 seconds left, he Saint Mary’s fans in attendance knew the wait was over.
After trailing early in the second half and fighting off runs from the Dons, the Gaels turned on the offense and got enough of a burst to beat USF 67-60 Saturday night and claim its first outright WCC championship since 1989.
“My dad called a couple of weeks ago, he said, after we had lost to LMU,” Saint Mary’s forward Rob Jones said. “He goes, ‘Your senior night for me is when you play at Memorial Gym and hopefully win a championship that night.’”
Saint Mary’s (25-5, 14-2 WCC) had clinched at least a share of the WCC title with its win on Thursday against Portland but tonight was just another hurdle.
The win tonight snapped Gonzaga’s streak of 11 straight WCC regular season titles, two short of tying the NCAA record.
“With three weeks to go I had doubts. I was concerned. We did something special,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “It’s nice to go and take care of business on your own.”
USF (18-12, 8-8) had won three of its last four coming into the game against Saint Mary’s, looking for its second straight win against a ranked team.
With 2:11 left, Jones made a layup to give the Gaels a 63-55 lead and they spent the next two possessions trying to run out the clock, using most of the shot clock on two straight possessions.
But a three from Cody Doolin and a layup from Mikey Williams cut the lead to 63-60.
With less than a minute, Jones was fouled and he converted on two free throws to push the lead to five, sealing the victory.
Jones picked up his 18th double-double of the season as he finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Coming out of the half, Saint Mary’s caught fire.
After USF retook the lead on a dunk by Perris Blackwell, the Gaels scored the next 10 points and took its largest lead of the night at 48-39.
“They’re style of play defensively, when they pressure, they force up a lot of turnovers and make you rush the ball a little,” Jones said. “But we were able to take our time… able to settle down and get good shots.”
Saint Mary’s shot 52 percent from the field, despite only shooting 28 percent from three-point range.
The Gaels won’t play again until next Saturday in the WCC Tournament semifinals.
USF will face the winner of the Santa Clara-Portland opening round game on Thursday in Las Vegas.
The Dons came out and pressured Saint Mary’s from the opening tip and were able to take advantage.
USF scored nine points on the Gaels’ six first half turnovers. Saint Mary’s only got two points from USF’s two turnovers.
USF and Saint Mary’s were tired four times in the first half and the lead also changed hands four times.
Saint Mary’s went up six early at 13-7 but the Dons fought back and used a 13-4 run to take a 20-17 lead after a fastbreak layup and free throw from Mikey Williams.
USF went up by as much as six in the half and got a huge lift from Angelo Caloiaro on Senior Night.
Caloiaro had 12 in the first half on 5-for-8 shooting.
Saint Mary’s went on a late 8-0 run in the first half, including six from Clint Steindl, to take the lead 35-33.
USF led at the half 37-36 on a buzzer-beating tip-in from Perris Blackwell.
Saint Mary’s shot 59 percent from the field in the half.
Follow Zack Farmer on Twitter: @ZFarmerExaminer