Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few was visiting with Portland State counterpart Ken Bone outside the Bulldogs’ locker room following GU’s win over Portland at the Chiles Center on Monday.
The conversation turned to a sloppy Gonzaga-Portland State preseason scrimmage, with Few smiling and offering words to the effect, “We looked like a couple of seventh-place teams going at it.”
Not any more. While Bone’s Vikings recently secured the Big Sky title, the 24th-ranked Bulldogs are eyeing their eighth straight West Coast Conference championship. Standing in their way is No. 25 Saint Mary’s, which dealt Gonzaga its only conference loss and has hogged some of the national attention that has typically gone to GU.
“I’ve said every year I’ve been a head coach that winning the conference is what it’s all about,” Few said. “It’s the most rewarding thing because you’ve taken everybody’s best shot for 7-8 weeks and you’ve gone on the road.”
This will be the first meeting of ranked WCC teams in the conference’s 56-year history.
“It’s good for the league,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “They’ve played in a lot of important games for a long time and we’ve played in some important games, too, but the league hasn’t had a ton of these.”
These teams seemingly have been on a collision course since the Gaels won the first meeting 89-85 in overtime last month in Moraga, but the Bulldogs have had their share of fender-benders along the way.
The season started ominously with injuries to Josh Heytvelt (foot) and Steven Gray (wrist) costing them a combined 21 games. Matt Bouldin played through ankle and/or calf injuries early on, missing just one contest. Jeremy Pargo took a wicked fall against Georgia, but played the next couple of weeks with a nasty, puffy bruise that stretched the width of his back.
There was the escape act against Santa Clara in which Gonzaga forced overtime when Steven Gray was fouled 65 feet from the basket with 0.3 seconds left. The Bulldogs have endured career performances from several unsung players, ranging from a Portland Pilots guard scoring 10 points after going point-free for the previous month to a San Diego guard hitting five 3-pointers after having made just three all season.
“You try telling people these seasons are a long journey with a lot of different chapters,” Few said. “I don’t think you would have scripted everything that’s happened to us back in September, but to our guys’ credit, here we are again.”
Saint Mary’s has navigated its own obstacles. Center Omar Samhan left last Saturday’s game against Kent State with a separated shoulder and was limited to 18 minutes in Monday’s win over San Diego. Samhan had similar problems with the other shoulder a few weeks ago. Reserve forward Lucas Walker also dislocated his shoulder last Saturday. Bennett expects both will play.
Forward Diamon Simpson has posted three straight double-doubles, but guard Patty Mills has scored just seven points in his last two games.
“People are sitting on (Mills) pretty hard,” Bennett said.
Mills had 23 points, including 13 of 18 free throws, against Gonzaga last month. Todd Golden made 6 of 6 3-pointers en route to a career-high 19 points. Simpson added 10 points and 11 rebounds. Samhan contributed 15 points.
“They’re a tough team and they rebound the ball well, so you have to play physical on the defensive end to handle that,” Few said. “We have to do a better job of not letting their shooters get going.”
The Gaels (24-4, 11-1) are one win from equaling the school record set by the 1988-89 and 2004-05 teams, but they’ve dropped 12 straight in Spokane. Both teams have strong NCAA tournament resumes. If neither Gonzaga nor Saint Mary’s wins the WCC tournament, tonight’s winner would have an additional safety net of earning no worse than a share of the regular-season crown.
“I think we both have some work to do this last week,” Bennett said, “but I think both teams are in decent shape.”
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