The West Coast Conference championship has always been a priority on Gonzaga’s checklist of goals.
There was no check mark next to the regular-season title a year ago for the Bulldogs. Saint Mary’s interrupted one of college basketball’s longest streaks of conference domination at 11.
The third-ranked Bulldogs (26-2, 13-0 WCC) can clinch no worse than a co-championship with a victory over San Diego (13-15, 6-7) Saturday at 4 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“We’re hungry to get that back in our grasp,” senior forward Mike Hart said. “It’s our first goal at the beginning of every year.”
The Zags have a two-game lead in the loss column over Saint Mary’s (23-5, 12-2), which edged BYU on Thursday. The fifth-place Toreros lost 70-67 at Portland.
“When the (last regular-season game against) Portland is over, then maybe there’ll be time to celebrate,” said senior forward Elias Harris, following Gonzaga’s 85-42 dismantling of Santa Clara on Wednesday. “Until then, stay focused and go as hard as we can.”
San Diego and Saint Mary’s are the only WCC teams to push Gonzaga to the final buzzer. The Toreros, with a week to prepare for GU, tinkered with their offense and had success, particularly guards Johnny Dee (21 points) and Chris Anderson (nine points, 11 assists) in Gonzaga’s 65-63 win earlier this month. USD also dominated the boards and did a creditable job defending Gonzaga’s interior duo of Harris (6 of 12 field goals, 18 points) and Kelly Olynyk (6 of 14, 15 points).
“They pushed us around, they were more physical,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We didn’t run great offense, nor did we play very good defense, and they deserve a lot of credit for that. At last now we’ve two days to get ready instead of one (prior to the first meeting).”
The 6-foot Dee averages 15 points and has made 64 3-pointers. The 5-foot-7 Anderson contributes 9.1 points and 5.5 assists. Senior wing Ken Rancifer, who makes 39 percent of his 3-point attempts, chips in 10.1 points per game.
“Their guards are quick and Johnny can really shoot it,” Bulldogs guard Kevin Pangos said. “They’re the motor of that team. Our whole team has to try to corral them.”