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St. Mary's spotlight dimmed by loss to Gonzaga

February 12,2017 18:58

Saint Mary's Dane Pineau, center, fights to keep the ball from Gonzaga's Zach Collins, left, Silas Melson (0) and Johnathan Williams, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Moraga, Calif. (AP Photo ...and more »



Photo: Ben Margot, Associated Press

Saint Mary's Dane Pineau, center, fights to keep the ball from Gonzaga's Zach Collins, left, Silas Melson (0) and Johnathan Williams, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Moraga, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Saint Mary's Dane Pineau, center, fights to keep the ball from...
Forget Lexington, Ky. Or Durham, N.C. And Chapel Hill, N.C.? Not even close.For one sun-soaked Saturday, the sleepy East Bay town of Moraga became America’s college basketball capital.
And it was fun while it lasted.
Starting at 6:30 a.m., St. Mary’s College fans packed into the cozy confines of McKeon Pavilion, anticipating that night’s big matchup against No. 1-ranked Gonzaga. ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast its national show from the court, while outside, cooks flipped 500 pancakes for the student body.
It was an all-day party at the bucolic campus, tucked away in the green hills of Contra Costa County. Tailgaters jammed the quad. DJs kept everyone dancing. Even the weather cooperated, providing a beautiful, sunny day to welcome thousands.

Unfortunately, the party didn’t extend onto the court. Despite the sold-out crowd, the deafening cheers, the desperate desire for an upset, St. Mary’s was unable to better the nation’s best, losing to unbeaten Gonzaga 74-64.
To be honest, it wasn’t as close as that score might indicate. Both teams played superb defense, with every shot contested, every possession intense. But, in the end. Gonzaga simply had too many weapons.
Led by senior center Przemek Karnowski, the Zags utilized a punishing inside game to keep the Gaels at bay. St. Mary’s made a strong run in the first half, tying things up at 23-23. But Gonzaga pushed back and led by nine at the half.

Photo: Ben Margot, Associated Press

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Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, left, shoots against Saint Mary's Jock Landale (34) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Moraga, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, left, shoots against Saint Mary's Jock Landale (34) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Moraga, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Photo: Ben Margot, Associated Press

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Saint MaryÂ’s Jock Landale (34) and Calvin Hermanson (24) harass GonzagaÂ’s Przemek Karnowski (24) during the first half of an NCAA college men's basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017 in Moraga, Calif.
Saint MaryÂ’s Jock Landale (34) and Calvin Hermanson (24) harass GonzagaÂ’s Przemek Karnowski (24) during the first half of an NCAA college men's basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017 in Moraga, Calif.

Photo: D. Ross Cameron, Special To The Chronicle

In the second half, St. Mary’s made another strong run early on, cutting its deficit to 49-44. But the Zags rebuilt their lead and kept a comfortable 10-point advantage for most of the rest of the game.
Gonzaga (26-0) showed why it’s atop the nation’s college basketball rankings. Coach Mark Few has put together the best roster of his 18-year tenure in Spokane. This year, junior forward Johnathan Williams, at 6-foot-9, is a legitimate NBA prospect. And point guard Silas Melson, a 6-4 junior, could also play at the next level.
Then there’s Karnowski, a hulking native of Torun, Poland, who’s listed at 7-1, 300 pounds. I think they got the height right, but Karnowski might be packing a few more pounds than advertised. If Ron Jaworski was football’s “Polish Rifle,” Karnowski is basketball’s “Polish Tank.”
No. 24 had his way inside against St. Mary’s, finishing the first half shooting 7-for-8 from the field, and adding a free throw. Every time the Gaels got close, Karnowski stood in the doorway and slammed it shut. With his big, bushy beard and burly physique, he looked like a full-grown man playing in a high school game. The Gaels’ center, and best player, Jock Landale was giving up 50 pounds, easy.
Karnowski finished the game with 19 points, and nine rebounds. And the Zags left little doubt that they were the dominant team in the WCC and well beyond.
One has to wonder whether Gonzaga can finish out a perfect regular season, making it the favorite to win a national championship. That’s new territory for Few and his team. Long regarded a scrappy “mid-major” that overperforms in the tournament, Gonzaga has become a powerhouse. If they don’t win the national title, the Zags will consider it a disappointment at this point.
That’s a remarkable achievement for a small, West Coast school. But that’s where Gonzaga is, helped along for years by its understudy and foil, St. Mary’s.
In reality, the Gaels aren’t that far behind in terms of remarkable achievements. Ranked No. 20 going into Saturday night’s mega-matchup, Randy Bennett’s team has played a strong schedule and has lost only three games. That should get them into the NCAA Tournament, although you never know with the Gaels. It’s like they were born on the bubble, and remain there every Selection Sunday. (It’s more like Groundhog Day in Moraga.)
We’ll see how it plays out. St. Mary’s will likely see Gonzaga one more time in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas in March. And knocking off Gonzaga to win that tournament would cement their selection for the NCAA’s March Madness.
Of course, St. Mary’s could’ve punched its ticket to the dance with a win over Gonzaga on Saturday night, too. But that didn’t happen. Instead, a packed house of die-hard fans sweated their way through the 94th game between these two bitter rivals. And it was glorious while it lasted. The student body remained standing and cheering and stomping throughout. But Bennett’s boys just couldn’t do it.
The heart was certainly there, but there was just too much talent in those black uniforms.
So, when it was all dribbled and done, Moraga enjoyed its day in the sun, basking in the spotlight as America’s No. 1 college basketball town. Even if it was for just one day.
But come Sunday morning, that title goes to Spokane, Wash. — where America’s No. 1 college basketball team resides.

Al Saracevic is the sports editor of The San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: asaracevic@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @alsaracevic

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