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WCC’s best meet again

Harris’ Zags try to slow Samhan, Saint Mary’s

The game, of course, is big. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s collide tonight at the McCarthey Athletic Center to determine who holds the steering wheel in the West Coast Conference race.

And then there’s the game within the game. The last time these two met, both shot at least 60 percent from the field in a high-scoring second half as the Bulldogs held off the Gaels 89-82 in Moraga, Calif., on Jan. 14. Inflicting most of the damage: Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, 31 points and 13 rebounds, and Omar Samhan of Saint Mary’s, 31 points and 12 rebounds. The two spent part of the game guarding each other.

“Harris is tough for everyone to deal with,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, whose team is 21-3, 8-1 WCC. “He’s a really good player and he plays big in big games.”

So adjustments can be expected? “He scored 31 of their 89,” Bennett said with a chuckle. “We have to do a better job all the way around.”

Same goes for the 16th-ranked Bulldogs (19-4, 7-1 WCC), who were outscored 49-44 in the second half of the first meeting. Samhan scored 25 points in the closing 20 minutes.

“They were looking for him in the post the whole game, especially in the second half,” said Gonzaga center Rob Sacre, who was often the primary defender on Samhan. “We just have to limit his touches in the paint and just play hard against him. We didn’t double him much. It was kind of difficult, but it’s a great challenge and I’m all for it.”

Doubling down comes with risk. Guards Mickey McConnell (52.9 percent) and Matthew Dellavedova (41) are quality 3-point shooters. Ben Allen, Clint Steindl and Jorden Page make nearly 40 percent of their 3s. Saint Mary’s makes 41.6 percent from distance, fourth best in the country.

“The way they shoot the 3 and as many as they make, that’s why they’re so good (offensively),” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “If you double (Samhan), they hit a 3. If you don’t, he can get 30 on you.”

Gonzaga has defended better of late. The Bulldogs held Portland to 49 points, 23 less than its average, and Memphis to 58 points, 17 less than average. Saint Mary’s is second in the WCC in field-goal percentage defense (42.4) and third in scoring defense (69.6 points).

The Bulldogs outrebounded the Gaels 45-27 last time, which GU turned into an 18-6 edge in second-chance points.

“They exposed us,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, we’ve improved since then. You’re not going to beat them if you don’t get stops. I felt like we weren’t making it very tough for them. The few shots they missed, they put them back in.”

Samhan’s best effort in Spokane came in his freshman season – 10 points and eight rebounds. The last two years combined he’s scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. The senior center expects to be greeted with chants and posters from the Kennel Club.

“I expect them to be how they always are, getting on me and everything else,” Samhan told the Contra Costa Times. “Every year we go up there, they get to leave with the last laugh. I’d like to leave there one time with the last laugh.”

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