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Gonzaga entertains Division I newcomer North Alabama following holiday break

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 27, 2018, 9:14 p.m.

Gonzaga, fresh from a short holiday break, welcomes an NCAA Division I newcomer to the McCarthey Athletic Center.

North Alabama is in the first year of its four-year transition to Division I. The Lions were a Division II power before joining the Atlantic Sun Conference in all sports but football, which is in the FCS Big South.

The Lions can compete for the Atlantic Sun title during the transition, but they aren’t eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

They’ve been competitive, for the most part, against several of the better teams on their schedule, but their three wins are over non-Division I programs. The Lions (3-10) lost to Saint Louis by 11, Pittsburgh by 5, Alabama-Birmingham by 6 and UNC Greensboro by 5. The Zags beat UNCG 68-64 in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

The seventh-ranked Zags (11-2) had a three-day break over Christmas. They’ll have a pair of practices before their first game since thumping Denver 101-60 last Friday.

There’s an outside chance senior guard Geno Crandall could return Friday after missing just more than a month with a fractured bone in his right hand that didn’t require surgery. Joel Ayayi played 12 minutes in both of the last two blowouts while Greg Foster Jr. has logged at least 4 minutes in each of GU’s last four games.

Junior forward Killian Tillie, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle in late October, is able to do more at practice each week but probably won’t be back prior to conference play. Freshman forward Filip Petrusev has been a steady contributor off the bench with seven games in double figures (8.8 points per game) and nearly 15 minutes per outing.

Petrusev and North Alabama’s Alexsa Matic, a 6-foot-4, 198-pound freshman guard from Belgrade, helped their native Serbia win the 2017 FIBA U18 European Championships. Petrusev scored 29 points in the title game as Serbia repeated as champions in the 2018 event in August.

Matic is one of seven freshmen seeing playing time for the Lions. Eleven of 12 players on the roster have started at least once for first-year coach Tony Pujol. Matic started four games earlier this month but was on the floor for just one minute against VMI last Friday. He’s averaging 3.7 points.

The Lions’ top five scorers range between 5-10 and 6-5. Guard Jamari Blackmon, a 6-0 freshman, leads the way at 16.2 points and 5-10 Kendarius Smith is next at 12.2. Senior Kendall Stafford, 6-4 and 220 pounds, chips in 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds.

UNA’s offense has struggled, averaging just 65.8 points on 38 percent shooting, including 29.6 percent beyond the 3-point line. The Lions haven’t hit above 35.5 percent on 3-pointers in a game since the season opener.

Gonzaga shut down UT Arlington and Denver in its last two games after a tough stretch against Creighton, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Zags, winners of 12 straight at home, have never faced a current Atlantic Sun program.

Gonzaga is in the midst of a six-game homestand that ends with pair of West Coast Conference games, Santa Clara on Jan. 5 and Pacific on Jan. 10. The Zags close their nonconference schedule against CSU Bakersfield on Monday.

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