It was the only game in doubt in the closing minutes during Gonzaga’s 12-game winning streak.
It was the only game that tested Gonzaga from start to finish in the first half of the West Coast Conference season.
The Zags needed a 17-2 closing kick in the final 3 minutes, 40 seconds to defeat San Francisco 96-83 last month. The rematch is Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Both teams have plenty of motivation. The Dons (17-5, 5-3 WCC) are trying to rebound from two consecutive losses. They’re tied for second in the loss column with Saint Mary’s and BYU. The first and second seeds receive a bye into the WCC Tournament semifinals.
An upset win over Gonzaga would fortify USF’s NCAA Tournament resume.
No. 4 Gonzaga (21-2, 8-0) is closing in on its seventh straight WCC regular-season title and the top seed in the WCC Tournament. The Zags don’t have much margin for error if they want to nail down a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.
“A bunch of veterans that have been in a system for a long time,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of San Francisco. “They run their system very tight and can make subtle adjustments to it depending on what you’re doing.
“They’ve got a special point guard (Frankie Ferrari) who is very comfortable out there. They took us down to the wire.”
The Dons haven’t won in Spokane since February 1989, but they gave Gonzaga fits in an 82-73 loss last season.
Third-year coach Kyle Smith has guided San Francisco’s resurgence. He’s compiled a 59-35 record while leading the Dons to a pair of 20-win seasons and two upper-half WCC finishes.
Guard Charles Minlend averages a team-leading 15.2 points. Ferrari checks in at 14.1 points and 5.7 assists. Matt McCarthy (10.2), Jordan Ratinho (9.3), 7-footer Jimbo Lull (8.1), Nate Renfro (7.4) and backup guard Jamaree Bouyea (6.2) contribute to a balanced offense.
San Francisco ranks second in the conference in scoring defense at 63.8 points per game. Gonzaga leads that category by a wide margin in WCC games (57.4) and ranks third overall (66.3).
The Zags won the first meeting behind the 45 combined points of Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura and clutch 3-pointers late by Zach Norvell Jr. and Geno Crandall.
Clarke, a 6-8 junior forward, is two blocks from becoming the program’s single-season record holder. Austin Daye swatted 70 shots in 2009. Clarke and Zach Collins (2017) are next at 69.
Clarke had two blocks in an 85-69 win over San Diego last Saturday. He’s third nationally at three blocks per game.
“I was definitely trying to get more, but (San Diego) does lots of shot fakes,” Clarke said. “I was trying to stay down and not foul them on shot fakes, something Coach Few drilled into my head.”
The Zags have been dominant in the WCC and at home. They’ve trailed for 8:01 in eight conference games. In 13 home games, opponents have led for just 11:32.
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