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Caution: Road work ahead if Gonzaga wants to claim another WCC title

Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire pleads for help from an official in 81-58 road loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 28. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire pleads for help from an official in 81-58 road loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 28. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

STOCKTON, Calif. – If Gonzaga plans on hoisting its 17th West Coast Conference regular-season title trophy in 18 seasons, it’ll have to do the heavy lifting on the road.

In the past, that hasn’t been much of a problem. The Zags have been good at home but nearly flawless on the road over the last five seasons. Gonzaga is riding a 20-game WCC road winning streak and has won 31 of its last 32 since the 2015 season. The Zags are 29-5 at the McCarthey Athletic Center during that same span.

No. 12 Gonzaga’s WCC schedule is backloaded this season with its four toughest road tests, beginning with Pacific, which shares third place with BYU, at the Spanos Center on Thursday. That’s followed by a rematch with No. 11 Saint Mary’s on Saturday.

GU closes the regular season with visits to fifth-place San Diego and BYU. The Zags (21-4, 11-1 WCC) clinch at least a share of the title if they run the table. They probably can’t afford a loss with Saint Mary’s (23-2, 12-0) facing an easier remaining schedule outside of Saturday’s showdown.

Gonzaga is unbeaten in five conference road games. The Zags’ best road win this season was a 97-70 rout over Washington, which is close to cracking the Top 25, but they stumbled at San Diego State.

Pacific (12-13, 7-5), picked eighth in the preseason coaches’ poll, is on the rise under second-year coach Damon Stoudamire, the former Arizona standout and 13-year NBA veteran.

The Tigers’ seven conference wins are their most since rejoining the WCC in 2014. Other WCC firsts since 2014: They won back-to-back road games last week and earlier they put together a four-game winning streak.

Stoudamire has accumulated some talent in transfers Miles Reynolds (Saint Louis) and Kendall Small (Oregon), grad transfer Namdi Okonkwo (Portland State) and former South Plains (Texas) Junior College teammates Roberto Gallinat and Jahlil Tripp.

Reynolds and Gallinat both check in at 13 points per game. The 7-foot Okonkwo doesn’t score much (5.1), but he leads the WCC at 2.7 blocks. The 6-5 Tripp is third in scoring (10.3) and first in rebounding (7.8), assists (4.1) and steals (1.5)

Juniors Anthony Townes and Jack Williams, a transfer from Long Beach, were on board before Stoudamire’s arrival. The two forwards combine for 17.6 points and 10 rebounds.

True freshman guard Lafayette Dorsey completes Pacific’s eight-man rotation.

Pacific and San Diego are probably the most improved teams in the WCC. Both pushed Saint Mary’s to the final buzzer on their home court. The Tigers are more offensive-minded than the Toreros but not as stout on defense.

Gonzaga rolled 81-48 in the first meeting in Spokane in late December, but it was fairly competitive for most of the first half. The Zags led by 10 seven minutes into the second half until stringing together 11 unanswered points.

The Zags have won by comfortable margins at the Spanos Center, but looks have been deceiving at times. The national runner-up squad from last year trailed at halftime and by eight in the second half before rallying for an 81-61 victory.

Gonzaga trailed in the second half before digging out a 71-61 win in 2016. Kyle Wiltjer poured in 45 points in an 86-74 victory in 2015.

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