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Saint Mary's Diamon Simpson has a first half shot blocked by Gonzaga's Micah Downs in the West Coast Conference championship game March 9, 2009, in Las Vegas, Nev. Simpson ended up with 19 points, the Gaels high scorer, but they still fell 83-58. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

LAS VEGAS

If you put any stock in omens, you knew Saint Mary's was in trouble even before the opening tip of Monday's West Coast Conference tournament championship game.

The Gaels were down even before the ball went up. One of them dunked during pregame warm-ups, a violation of NCAA rules. A technical foul was called. So as nine other players clustered around the tipoff circle, Gonzaga's Matt Bouldin repaired to the free-throw line.

He made the first and missed the second. With 20:00 showing on the clock, the Gaels trailed 1-0. Which, in the final analysis, was as good as it got for Saint Mary's.

"You don't want to start (trailing) 1-zip, 2-zip before the jump ball," coach Randy Bennett said, chuckling darkly, after Gonzaga's 83-58 win. "It goes with the way we played."

But it also goes with the way Gonzaga played, and that was the crux of the philosophical debate after Monday's game. Bennett and his players were properly complimentary toward Gonzaga, now as ever the glass ceiling for every properly ambitious WCC program. But the company line was decidedly introspective.

"Tonight I think it was us," said center Omar Samhan, who scored 17 points and had nine rebounds. "Nothing against Gonzaga; they have good players and a good program. But defensively we didn't bring it tonight. We can play better."

The box score makes for a staunch ally in this regard. The Gaels shot 28.8 percent from the floor and made just 3 of 17 3-pointers. Gonzaga shot 54.8 percent, 50 percent from behind the arc.

"They make it hard to score points," Bennett said. "We just gave up so many easy points. In a game like this, you'd like to play well. We didn't play well."

Then there's the Patty Mills factor. Mills returned from a five-week absence to play in Sunday's semifinal and Monday's title game. He shot a combined 5-for-28, with six turnovers and five assists. He left nothing on the floor, and had no interest in throwing his surgically repaired right hand under the bus afterward.

"There's nothing wrong with my hand," he said. "When you shoot as bad as that, you have to focus on something else. I couldn't do that either."

But Bennett was more inclined to acknowledge the obvious.

"Pat's going to give you everything he's got," Bennett said. "To ask him to do what he did is a lot, especially the second game less than 24 hours after the first, after you haven't practiced in four and a half weeks. That's when it's going to get you."

Reasoned, well-considered arguments all. Saint Mary's could have played better, and Mills was a victim of sketchy conditioning and a right hand that clearly isn't quite right. The folly, it says here, is believing that changing any of the above would have made a difference in Monday's outcome.

Many of the problems the Gaels put on themselves were the result of Gonzaga's ability to play precision basketball at a break-neck pace. Many of Mills' misses, for example, came after drives to the hoop when he had to resort to wild shots over a collapsing defense.

Once the real game started, Gonzaga jumped to a 13-3 lead, held the Gaels without a field goal for the first 5:41 and led by 13 at halftime. The Zags went 14-0 during WCC play, won their two conference tournament games by a combined 60 points and beat Saint Mary's three times in three tries.

Gonzaga is talented and deep, and there seems no getting around the conclusion that it has gained serious separation on its WCC brethren — including Saint Mary's, now a distinct and distant second banana.

If you thought that played poorly Monday night, you might want to plug your ears Sunday when the NCAA Tournament field is announced.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.