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Back in first place, Gonzaga tries to stay put as Loyola Marymount comes to town

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 14, 2018, 5:49 p.m.

It took Gonzaga nearly a month of work to move back into a tie for first place in the West Coast Conference.

It required seven consecutive wins. There were no cakewalks with final margins between eight and 16 points. The Zags delivered in crunch time to finish off three home wins.

It took four road wins, including a 78-65 victory over No. 11 Saint Mary’s on Saturday that left the Zags and Gaels at 13-1 in conference.

The last thing Gonzaga wants to do now is give it back in the final two weeks of the regular season. The first things the ninth-ranked Zags want to do: Build on an impressive victory over the Gaels and avoid a letdown.

Gonzaga (23-4 overall) will be heavily favored in its two-game homestand, which begins against ninth-place Loyola Marymount (8-17, 3-11) on Thursday and concludes versus last-place Pepperdine (4-22, 1-13) on Saturday. On paper, it should get tougher next week when Gonzaga visits San Diego and BYU.

“It’s pretty important because we’re trying to set ourselves up for great position in the NCAA Tournament,” senior forward Johnathan Williams said, when asked about finishing the regular season strongly. “We’re trying to set ourselves up for a great tournament seed.”

One sure-fire way to accomplish that would be to keep playing offense and defense the way the Zags did against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels hadn’t yielded more than 73 points since falling to Georgia 83-81 in overtime in late November. Their 65 points matched a season low.

GU’s win equaled the highest-ranked road victory in program history (No. 11 UCLA, 59-43 in 1999).

The Zags beat LMU 85-66 in early January in Los Angeles. They looked great in building a 34-20 lead, then sputtered to close the half as LMU closed within 46-41. They looked unbeatable while opening the second half with a 17-0 run. The Lions competed to the finish line, pulling within 14 late.

Williams poured in 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting as the Zags made 56 percent of their shots.

LMU ranks first in the WCC in steals (7.1), turnovers forced (13.9) and offensive rebounding (12.8).

“They have an aggressive guard (James Batemon) who has big-time games when he’s going,” Zags senior guard Silas Melson said. “It wasn’t one of our hardest games, but they did up their defensive pressure and that’s one of the things we do expect is a lot of defensive pressure.”

The Zags can expect a few reminders from the coaching staff about Steven Haney’s shooting range. Gonzaga lost track of the senior wing, who buried five 3-pointers to keep LMU close in the first half. He finished with 22 points.

Batemon averages 16.9 points, 4.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds. The Lions’ rotation is fairly deep, but they rely on the combined scoring of Batemon, Haney and freshman forward Eli Scott for 43 points per game. Haney made six 3s and scored 31 points in a victory over Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga has won 17 straight in the series.

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