Sunday, March 4, 2012 | 12:06 a.m.
Saturday brought the kind of fight card Las Vegas is known for, matching two high-profile West Coast college basketball teams.
Unfortunately for the sellout crowd at Orleans Arena, the West Coast Conference tournament semifinal between BYU and Gonzaga was an early-round knockout, with the Bulldogs (25-5) sprinting to an early double-digit lead and never letting BYU (25-8) draw closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
The final score: Gonzaga 77, BYU 58. The Bulldogs will face St. Mary’s, which defeated San Francisco in the other semifinal.
Gonzaga Coach Mark Few joked afterward that his players had extra motivation to reach Monday’s championship game (6 p.m., ESPN): Mandalay Bay’s wave pool open’s Monday. “I was under a lot of pressure from my kids,” Few said.
The game featured a Jimmeresque performance, but unfortunately for the Cougars, it was by Bulldog freshman guard Kevin Pangos, who led all scorers with 30 points on 10 of 17 shooting, including five from long range.
“A lot of it was my fault. A lot of it was my assignment,” BYU’s Charles Abouo said of Pangos.
It was the teams’ fourth meeting in less than a year, with the Bulldogs evening the series over that stretch.
Gonzaga, which BYU knocked out of last year’s NCAA Tournament, has established itself as an elite program with 11 consecutive conference championships, a streak that ended this season, and 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
BYU is one of only two teams to win 25 or more games each of the past six seasons — the other is Kansas.
But BYU, which was coming off a close victory over San Diego the night before, didn’t shoot the ball well — 17 percent from long range, 63 percent from the free-throw line and 38 percent overall. Center Brandon Davies led BYU scorers with 17 points.
“We had a hard time scoring to start the game,” BYU coach Dave Rose said afterward.
BYU’s leading scorer, Noah Hartsock, who helped seal the victory over San Diego, appeared bothered by a knee injury. He had 12 points.
The Bulldogs came into the game looking like they owned the Orleans Arena, which they largely have over the past decade, reaching the title game in each of the past 15 years and winning the WCC Tournament seven of the past 10. The Bulldogs made 47 percent of their three-point shots, 63 percent of their free throws and 55 percent of their shots overall.
BYU, which last year joined the WCC for all sports but football, has always drawn well in Las Vegas, a sort-of second home for Cougar teams during their time in the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences. But the Bulldog contingent Saturday night was definitely bigger and had much more to cheer about.
While Gonzaga is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, BYU is considered by many to be on the bubble. Rose appeared to get a jump on lobbying for the Cougars, following the game.
“This team deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament. Period,” Rose said.
The Orleans Arena, a Boyd Gaming facility located just west of the Las Vegas Strip, is one of the nation’s leading mid-sized arenas, and was recently ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 5 internationally among venues of similar size by Venues Today Magazine.
The Arena hosts more than 200 events each year, including concerts by top names like Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Van Halen, Brooks & Dunn, Black Eyed Peas, Akon and Rihanna; family favorites like The Harlem Globetrotters and Circus Spectacular; and a wide variety of sporting events, including NCAA basketball tournaments, the West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference Basketball Championships, mixed martial arts with Superior Cage Combat, and major motorsports events.
The arena serves as home to the Las Vegas Wranglers professional ECHL hockey team, the Las Vegas Legends professional indoor soccer team, and the Lingerie Football League’s Las Vegas Sin. Stay connected to the Orleans Arena on Facebook (www.facebook.com/orleansarena) and on Twitter (@orleansarena).