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Loyola Marymount’s James Batemon proved a tough task for Gonzaga to defend in WCC Tournament opener

Gonzaga guard Silas Melson (0) fouls Loyola Marymount guard James Batemon (5) during the second half of a West Coast Conference Basketball Championships men's quarterfinal game, Sat., March. 3, 2018, at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Silas Melson (0) fouls Loyola Marymount guard James Batemon (5) during the second half of a West Coast Conference Basketball Championships men's quarterfinal game, Sat., March. 3, 2018, at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – The last time Loyola Marymount met Gonzaga, the Lions were a few men short.

They were missing their starting duo – guards Steven Haney, who was out with a season-ending knee injury, and James Batemon, who was forced to sit against Gonzaga with turf toe.

The Lions clearly felt the absence of both in LMU’s 30-point loss to the Zags in February.

In Saturday’s West Coast Conference quarterfinal matchup, in which top-seeded Gonzaga knocked off No. 7 seed LMU 83-69, the Lions at least had Batemon back on the court and in the starting lineup.

Batemon has been LMU’s driving force this season, averaging a team-high 17.5 points before Saturday and shooting 48 percent from the field.

“Batemon is a great player,” Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie said. “We knew he was going to play hard.”

Especially since Batemon didn’t get his second chance at the Zags in the regular season. In his only regular-season meeting with the Zags in January, the junior shot just 30.8 percent from the field (4 for 13) for 13 points. That stat line did little to help the Lions as they fell 85-66 for their sixth consecutive loss.

On Saturday, Batemon started off the night looking much like he did in January. Guards Silas Melson and Josh Perkins did well at containing Batemon in the first half, allowing him five points and just one field goal, a 3-pointer, in seven attempts.

But Batemon was let loose in the second half. He zipped through Gonzaga’s defense for a couple of nine-point runs that kept the Lions close.

Batemon did the most damage in the opening minutes of the half with a nine-point run that started with a long 3-pointer to tie the score at 34. He followed with a jumper, then split the interior defense with back-to-back layups that gave the Lions a 40-39 lead.

He went on another nine-point streak about 7 minutes later beginning with four makes at the line.

With 8 minutes left in the game, Batemon put up a desperate 3-pointer at 24 feet out and drained it, cutting Gonzaga’s lead to 63-57. A minute later he scored from the perimeter to pull within five points of the Zags.

Head coach Mark Few adjusted Gonzaga’s coverage on Batemon and put sophomore forward Rui Hachimura on the guard. Batemon, who measures 6-foot-1, wasn’t able to get through the 6-8 Hachimura for another field goal for the rest of the game and only scored on two free throws.

“He got going, but he was struggling with our length,” Tillie said. “So we put Rui on him and he did a great job on him. It made a difference in the end.”

Hachimura’s pressure allowed the Zags to finally pull away on a 10-0 run in the final minutes.

Batemon finished with a game-high 27 points, shooting 42.1 percent from the field (8 of 19). He went 8 for 11 at the line.

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