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Published September 19, 2015
Mark Few is admittedly road weary, and that is truly saying something for a Gonzaga coach who for years has played a daunting schedule taking his team all over the country.
At least the Zags are now headed home to Spokane, Wash., on a nice roll just in time for their first showdown of the season with Saint Mary's coming up Thursday.
Kelly Olynyk made a key putback with 1:55 remaining on the way to a career-high 33 points, and No. 10 Gonzaga held off a late rally to beat Santa Clara 81-74 on Saturday night for its sixth straight victory.
"It was a great road trip. Probably the best I've ever been on in 25 years," said Few, whose team departed Dec. 30 with its first stop a 69-68 win at then-No. 22 Oklahoma State on New Year's Eve. "It started in Stillwater in front of 13,500 and into here tonight. That was an inspired, spirited, really much-improved Santa Clara team. We withstood all their shots and got it done. ... We're in the most difficult stretch I've ever been a part of."
Elias Harris added 14 points for the Zags (15-1, 2-0 WCC), determined to win another West Coast Conference crown after Saint Mary's snapped the school's run of 11 straight won or shared conference titles.
Olynyk also had 10 rebounds, scored eight straight points late as the Zags shot 55.3 percent from the floor and beat the Broncos for the 26th time in the past 28 matchups.
"I knew in this game, especially, that I was feeling good about myself, my confidence was really high and I knew I was going to make plays if my team needed me to," said Olynyk, who averaged 23.3 points over the three-game trip.
Kevin Foster scored 29 points and reached the 2,000 mark for his career and Marc Trasolini had 19 points and nine rebounds for Santa Clara (12-4, 1-1), which is off to the program's best start since 1997-98.
After Trasolini's dunk with 16:23 remaining pulled Santa Clara within 46-44, Olynyk scored four straight points and six of the Zags' next eight as his team began to pull away before one last-ditch Santa Clara rally.
Gonzaga also shifted to a zone defense and caused the Broncos problems getting to the basket. Few said it was also a way for him to give his tired players a bit of a breather considering the long road trip.
Foster had 17 of his points in the first half with two of his team's six 3-pointers, then scored Santa Clara's initial six points after halftime before struggling to create shots.
"We just like switching up our D's," Few said. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
His jumper with 6:55 left cut Gonzaga's lead to six, then Trasolini hit a pair of free throws the next time down the floor to make it 64-60.
But Gonzaga came through with the big plays down the stretch. Olynyk made a pair of free throws with 4:31 to go.
"Our guys are learning and understanding that when you're elevating your level of play and playing at a higher level every little thing is going to stand out," Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. "This is the best team in our league right now up to this point, and to be able to beat them you have to minimize your mistakes that you can control. Those were things we could control and unfortunately we didn't do a good enough job of it."
Santa Clara faced a top-10 opponent for the second time in exactly a week after losing 90-77 at No. 1 Duke on Dec. 29. The Broncos dropped to 9-3 at home.
The raucous, sold-out Leavey Center drew a standing-room only crowd of 4,907 — the largest attendance ever in the cozy arena.
Gonzaga grabbed the opening tipoff and Olynyk dunked just 4 seconds into the game, then the Zags came out in a full-court trap press.
"That kind of worked out well," Olynyk said. "I've never done that before."
The 7-foot, 238-pound Olynyk scored 17 points in the first half on 7-for-8 shooting, including six as Gonzaga used a 12-4 run over the final 5:35 to take a 41-34 lead at the break.
Olynyk was held to 4 of 8 shooting in a 78-62 win at Pepperdine on Thursday night.
With school still out for the holiday break until Monday and on-campus dormitories closed until Sunday, Keating did all he could to ensure a packed house — offering $100 hotel reimbursements from his own bank account to those students who live on campus but had nowhere to stay Saturday night.
A dozen students took advantage of the offer sharing four rooms, and there was no lack of spirit as is always the case when the Zags come to campus.
While Gonzaga swept both meetings last season, the Bulldogs had a nine-game winning streak in the series snapped with a 73-62 loss at Santa Clara's home court on Jan. 20, 2011.
Santa Clara ended a 17-game losing streak against conference opponents by beating San Francisco 74-69 on Wednesday night. The Broncos were trying to win their first two conference games for the first time since 2003-04.
Foster went just 2 for 12 from long range and Santa Clara was 7 of 23 overall.
"I had some good looks, some clean looks but they don't fall sometimes for me," Foster said. "I'm a key in the offense and I didn't make as many shots as I could. I take responsibility for that."