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Gonzaga facing UCLA team on the rise

Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (11) drives into the key as UCLA center Thomas Welsh defends during the second half of an NCAA Sweet Sixteen tournament last season in Houston. The two teams meet again on Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (11) drives into the key as UCLA center Thomas Welsh defends during the second half of an NCAA Sweet Sixteen tournament last season in Houston. The two teams meet again on Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Fortunes can swing in a hurry in college basketball. For example: How different would the outlook be if Gonzaga and UCLA met, say, just 12 days ago?

The Zags were 4-1, coming off victories over Washington and ranked Connecticut on a neutral floor. UCLA opened the season with a home loss to Monmouth. In Maui, the Bruins trailed Kansas 59-33 at half and lost to Wake Forest the next day.

Gonzaga’s momentum slowed when 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski took a hard spill in practice 11 days ago and injured his back. The Karnowski-less Zags are 2-1, sandwiching wins over Washington State and Montana around a disappointing home loss to Arizona, but their offense has slipped from 81.4 points per game to 64.3.

UCLA (6-3), meanwhile, has won three straight, including an impressive victory over No. 1 Kentucky. The Bruins are fully stocked with motivation for Saturday’s meeting at the McCarthey Athletic Center after losing to Gonzaga twice last season, once in Pauley Pavilion and a season-ender in the Sweet 16.

“They’re coming in on a high,” Gonzaga freshman point guard Josh Perkins said. “They probably want revenge, they probably have a bitter taste in their mouth. We still have a bitter taste from Saturday (Arizona) so it’ll be a good game.”

The 20th-ranked Zags narrowly avoided losing consecutive home games for the first time at the McCarthey Athletic Center, thanks to 6-of-7 free-throw shooting and Perkins’ clutch jumper in the final 66 seconds of Tuesday’s 61-58 win over Montana.

Gonzaga (6-2) has had its three worst shooting games in a row and continues to battle turnover issues. The Zags have had more turnovers than opponents in seven of eight games and they’ve been outscored 125-89 in points off turnovers this season.

“We’re kind of struggling right now; we have a lot to work on,” sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis said. “We just have to slow our pace down and play with poise.”

All five UCLA starters average in double figures, led by Bryce Alford’s 16.2 points and forward Tony Parker’s 14 points and Pac-12 leading 10.9 rebounds.

“The issue is (Kyle) Wiltjer plays on the perimeter a lot, that’s going to be the true test,” said Bruins coach Steve Alford said. “We’ve got Tom (Welsh) and Tony. How does that war end up because Wiltjer is going to take Tony out(side) and we’re going to put Wiltjer in(side).”

Gonzaga’s defense has been dependable most of the season. Connecticut is the only opponent to reach 70 points, and it required a 43-point second half. Arizona put up 40 in the second half to finish with 68 points. The Zags rank 21st in scoring defense (61.3), 16th in field-goal percentage (36.4) and third in 3-point field-goal percentage (23.8).

Gonzaga holds a 3-1 series lead. This is the Bruins’ first visit to the McCarthey Athletic Center, where GU is 154-10.

“I’ve heard they’re really aggressive,” said Sabonis, who averaged 11 points and seven boards against UCLA last season. “They’re probably more aggressive than us. We have to change that.”

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