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Gonzaga tangles with Herb Sendek-led Santa Clara

Herb Sendek, pictured in 2014 when he coached at Arizona State, watches his team during a practice at the NCAA Tournament in Milwaukee. (Morry Gash / Associated Press)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Herb Sendek’s background indicates he’s familiar with chasing and sometimes catching the traditional powers in a conference.

He’s been coach of the year in three different conferences. He guided Miami (Ohio), North Carolina State and Arizona State to a combined eight NCAA tournament appearances in his 23 seasons.

Sendek’s latest stop is at Santa Clara, which is off to a promising start in the WCC entering a four-game homestand that begins with No. 4 Gonzaga (17-0, 5-0 WCC) on Thursday.

Sendek’s chore in the WCC – similar to his time in the ACC with Duke and North Carolina and his Pac-10/12 days against Arizona and UCLA – is trying to make up ground on Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, all of whom visit the Leavey Center before the end of January.

“We have great respect for all the teams in our league,” Sendek said. “The coaching, the playing is just at a very high level and it brings out the very best in you. And sometimes it probably brings out the worst in you.

“It’s competition at the highest level, and it stretches you in every way possible.”

Santa Clara (10-9, 4-2 WCC) has won four of its last five games, a hot streak that corresponds with the return of guard KJ Feagin from a broken foot suffered in the third fall practice.

Feagin, a WCC All-Freshman team selection last year, plays alongside Matt Hauser, who took over at point when Feagin was sidelined. They both average double figures and each hand out more than five assists per game.

“KJ is big part of who we are and what we do,” Sendek said. “He’s still working his way back, trying to catch up with the rest of the guys who had a those three months head-start on him.”

Guard Jared Brownridge is the team’s headliner, and for good reason. The 6-foot-3 senior is a versatile scorer with a knack for playing well against top competition. He scored 25 against Arizona, 36 versus Vanderbilt and 30 on Valparaiso.

Brownridge hit a game-winner against San Diego last Thursday and scored 30 points in a victory over Pepperdine to earn WCC player of the week honors. He connected on 12 of 23 3-pointers in those two road wins.

“Those (guards) have really embraced their roles and embraced what we’re doing,” Sendek said.

Colville High product Matt Hubbard left the team in December. The junior forward, who made the WCC All-Freshman team two years ago, had ankle reconstruction surgery last spring and saw limited minutes in eight games this season.

“He’s going to graduate at the end of the year. If he’d like he’d have an opportunity to maybe play somewhere next year,” Sendek said. “He went through a lot with his ankle.”