LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joel Ayayi is always ready whenever his team needs him.
Gonzaga needed him on Monday night, and he delivered.
Ayayi scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and the second-ranked Bulldogs withstood a scare to beat San Francisco 81-77 on Monday night in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals.
“I don’t think I flipped the switch,” Ayayi said. “Just trying to make the plays when the team needs me. Whenever I have the ball and need to make a play on the clock, I have to make a play and I’m just trying to do my best.”
The redshirt sophomore from Bordeaux, France, broke a 69-69 tie with 4:14 left with a jumper, and hit a mid-range shot on the following possession to give Gonzaga a 73-69 lead. Ayayi scored eight of Gonzaga’s nine points during a 9-3 run.
The top-seeded Bulldogs (30-2) will play Saint Mary’s in Tuesday’s championship game after the Gaels edged No. 14 BYU 51-50 in the second semifinal. Saint Mary’s upset Gonzaga in last year’s title game to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It will be Gonzaga’s 23rd consecutive WCC final and the school is seeking its 17th championship.
“We’ve had some incredible streaks at Gonzaga,” coach Mark Few said. “The fact that we can come down here, fight our tails off against a really good San Francisco team, knowing that we’re playing onward, shows toughness and substance from our guys.”
Killian Tillie had 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Ryan Woolridge had 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting to pace Gonzaga, which improved to 12-0 all-time in tournament openers in Las Vegas.
Charles Minlend scored 19 points, one of four players in double figures for the Dons (22-12). Khalil Shabazz had 17 points.
San Francisco had a 12-2 run in the first half and tied it at 25-25 on Remu Raitanen’s 3-pointer with 6:29 left.
The Dons defeated Loyola Marymount and Pacific to reach the semis.
“Playing the No. 2 team in the country, third time this year where we’ve had really good efforts against them,” USF coach Todd Golden said, “and I think it sets us up really nicely for the NIT.”
Gonzaga had a 10-3 run shortly thereafter. Woolridge, who had 14 points in the first half, hit his second 3 with 49 seconds left to make it 39-32.
The Dons took their first lead at 54-53 with 11:50 remaining on a three-point play from Minlend.
“I think we stuck with what we wanted to do,” Minlend said. “We just missed some shots that normally go in. We didn’t make them.”
San Francisco kept it close by attacking the basket and limiting Gonzaga offensively. The Dons were 1 for 6 from 3-point range to start the second half but made 10 of their first 14 2-pointers. They finished 6 for 26 from 3.
“If we knocked down a few more shots, we probably win the game,” Golden said.
Gonzaga went 18 of 26 from the free-throw line, while San Francisco made 11 of its 15 attempts.
Gonzaga improved to 25-3 in the WCC tournament since it moved to Las Vegas in 2009. This is the 19th time the Bulldogs have been the top seed in the tournament, and they will try to win the championship for the ninth time in Las Vegas.
THE LIST IS FEW
Gonzaga improved to 44-5 under Few in the WCC tournament. The last time the Bulldogs lost in the semifinals was in 1994, 83-75 to San Diego.
Since the tournament moved to Las Vegas, the Dons are 8-12, including 1-6 against the No. 1 seed. USF has not beaten Gonzaga in the conference tournament since 1998.
San Francisco: Awaits a possible NIT game.
Gonzaga: WCC championship game.
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