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Wary GU must steer clear of Pilots

It was two years ago that the University of Portland men’s basketball team breezed into the old Kennel in Martin Centre and put a 72-68 defeat on Gonzaga that ranks as one of the biggest West Coast Conference upsets in recent memory.

The Pilots, in their second season under coach Michael Holton, beat a veteran Bulldogs team that was destined to win another WCC title and advance to its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament. Portland did it by playing four guards, spreading the floor and knocking down perimeter shots against the Zags’ scrambling defense.

The Pilots (13-8 overall, 2-4 in the WCC) return tonight, hoping to spring another surprise on the 17th-ranked Bulldogs (14-4, 4-2) – this time in GU’s new 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center.

Tipoff is set for 8, with another sellout crowd and a national ESPN2 television audience on hand. They will see a much different Portland team than the one Holton brought to town back in February 2003.

Granted, the Pilots still rely heavily on quickness and athletic moves in the backcourt, where 5-foot-10 junior and all-WCC returnee Pooh Jeter heads a group of veteran guards that also includes 6-4 junior and defensive whiz Donald Wilson and 6-3 junior Darren Cooper, a transfer from Eastern Washington University.

But this Portland team has added some inside muscle in the person 6-10, 230-pound sophomore Ben Sullivan, who starts at power forward, and 6-8, 235-pound freshman backup Marcus Lewis. The two are averaging a combined 17.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

Holton has been particularly impressed with Lewis, who has, at times, been dominant in the low post.

“Marcus has made steady progress all year long, coming off the bench and giving us a much-needed inside presence,” Holton said. “He’s really become a force for us as we transition from being a perimeter-oriented team to one that can play inside-out every night.”

GU coach Mark Few doesn’t expect anything but the best from the Pilots, who will have played five of their first seven WCC games on the road.

“They came in and beat us two years ago,” Few said, “so I don’t think they’re going to be wowed by playing in our new building.”

Holton would like to agree, but points out that his Pilots are 0-4 on the road against WCC opponents.

“We’ve been swimming upstream on the road, but holding serve at home,” he said.

Gonzaga, too, has struggled on the road, where the Bulldogs are a modest 2-2.

But the Zags have yet to lose in McCarthey Athletic Center.

Holton said there’s no reason to read much into GU’s road losses at Saint Mary’s and San Francisco.

“They won our league last year, right?” he said. “Then in our minds, they’re the defending champions, and they remain very talented, well coached and difficult to play against anywhere – but particularly at home in the new Kennel.”

Sophomore Adam Morrison, who was held out the starting lineup for the first time this season in last Saturday’s 68-56 road win over San Diego, continues to lead the Bulldogs in scoring with an average of 17.8 points per game.

But Holton seems more concerned about the play of Derek Raivio, the Zags’ sophomore point guard, who is averaging 12.7 points, 5.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game.

“Raivio has stepped up in big games for them and has been at his best when his best was needed,” Holton said. “And as a team, they have a lot of different things they’ve had to play through, which is probably going to make them better down the stretch.”

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