MORAGA, Calif. – Two weeks ago, Saint Mary’s was humming along with the best start in school history, a candidate for West Coast Conference player of the year, a national ranking and conference championship aspirations.
Then standout point guard Patty Mills took an awkward fall in the lane.
That tumble sent Mills to the sideline with a broken right hand and the Gaels into a tailspin. Mills exited late in the first half against Gonzaga and the Bulldogs rallied from a six-point deficit for a 69-62 win that eclipsed the Gaels’ 15-game winning streak.
Without Mills, the Gaels dropped two of their next three.
They were held to 62 points by GU (after a 39-point first half), tying their second-lowest output of the season. They scored just 52 points in a blowout loss to Santa Clara last Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were cruising along with their own winning streak. They’d taken control of the WCC race and were climbing in the polls. But Saturday night, Gonzaga took a giant step backward when it was humbled by Memphis 68-50 at the Arena.
So the 19th-ranked Bulldogs (17-5, 8-0 WCC) have problems of their own to deal with as they enter the rematch with the struggling Gaels (19-4, 6-3) tonight at 8 at McKeon Pavilion.
“It’s very important,” junior guard Matt Bouldin said. “This is exactly like our loss to UConn. We didn’t get embarrassed (by the Huskies), but we had a little slump after that and we can’t go through that again.”
Gonzaga was dismantled by the Tigers at both ends of the court.
“I’m sure there are people that still love us and there are people that are second-guessing us,” senior center Josh Heytvelt said. “Every team has a slip-up once in a while. A lot of teams in the Top 25 have been doing the same thing that happened to us on Saturday. We just have to move on.”
The Gaels haven’t been able to replace Mills’ 18.7 points or the turbo boost he brought to their transition game. They hope he can return for the WCC tournament. Freshman Mickey McConnell started the first game following Mills’ injury. Junior Wayne Hunter got the nod the last two games, scoring 17 points. McConnell has added 19 points off the bench.
“They were so dependent on (Mills) before,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “Now they’ve had time to work without him, and I think we’ll see an inside-oriented team with (Omar) Samhan and (Diamon) Simpson getting a lot of touches. Obviously, after watching us rebound against Memphis, Saint Mary’s is a great rebounding team and I think they’re going to look to exploit that a little bit.
“They also know this is probably their last chance to stay in the league hunt if they can get us. If we can get (two wins) this weekend, then we’re in great shape for the league title.”
Forwards Samhan and Simpson combine to average 27 points and 20 rebounds. Simpson had 17 points and 12 rebounds against Gonzaga in Spokane.
“My dad and I talked about playing better defense in the post and how I can make some adjustments,” GU forward Austin Daye said, referring to his father Darren, the former NBA player. “Hopefully, I can take care of business.”
Gonzaga’s first order of business will be playing with passion, an element that was missing in Saturday’s game.
“Patty was such a key part of their team, but it’s not like they don’t have players. They have two All-WCC players in Samhan and Simpson and their guard play is still solid,” Bouldin said. “They’re going to be hyped for the game, so they’ll come out with a different kind of fire. We need to match that instead of what we did against Memphis.”