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Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s clash in WCC first-place showdown

Silas Melson didn’t mince words.

The Gonzaga junior guard offered a blunt assessment of Saint Mary’s two regular-season wins last year over the Zags, particularly the Gaels’ victory at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“Play smart, but play with a certain kind of chip on our shoulder,” Melson said. “I think last year with the exception of Las Vegas (a GU win in the WCC tournament championship game) we came out and we didn’t show heart. We came out there and let the guards pick us apart, let them get whatever they wanted.

“We need to come out with a lot of energy but also play smart because that team is killer with the pick-and-roll when they go ball screen. We’ve got a tough one.”

So does Saint Mary’s.

The 21st-ranked Gaels (15-1, 5-0 WCC) return virtually everybody from last year’s 29-win team. Gonzaga’s win in the WCC title game prevented the Gaels from making the NCAA tournament.

The fifth-ranked Zags (16-0, 4-0) rely on key holdovers Przemek Karnowski, Josh Perkins and Melson, joined by transfers Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams, and freshmen forwards Zach Collins and Killian Tillie.

It was quiet inside the McCarthey Athletic Center during Thursday’s win over Loyola Marymount. That should change for the rival Gaels with GU students expected to be back in full force.

“When it gets crazy in there for them, it gets crazy on the court for us,” Perkins said. “It needs to be crazy on Saturday.”

If history is any indication, these teams will probably meet three times with the outcomes going a long way toward determining WCC regular-season and tournament titles.

“They’re a mature team that plays extremely well together, both offensively and defensively,” GU coach Mark Few said. “They take great care of the ball and don’t beat themselves.”

Good luck finding weak spots on either squad. Gaels guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon combine for 18 points and 11.6 assists per game. Williams-Goss and Perkins produce 25 points and 8.5 assists.

The scoring and 3-point shooting stats of Saint Mary’s wing Calvin Hermanson and the Zags’ Mathews are nearly identical.

Both teams use four-player rotations in the frontcourt with the matchup of Karnowski and Saint Mary’s Jock Landale taking center stage.

Landale has more than doubled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season, thanks to changes in his diet and conditioning.

“I was at 270 pounds at the end of last season,” Landale said. “I cut out all the carbs and all the sweets for probably a solid 6 months. The weight started dropping off pretty easy and I got down to 243 pounds or something. I got heavily into the weight-training and I’m back up to 250 pounds or so.”

Landale will go up against the 7-foot-1, 300-pound Karnowski.

“I’m excited. There’s not many guys we play against like that in our conference,” Karnowski said. “He goes to the baseline or to the middle so it’s hard to take one thing away.”

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