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Gonzaga Basketball

One more pre-Christmas challenge awaits as Gonzaga entertains Eastern Washington

The Gonzaga Bulldogs could use a break after a demanding three-week stretch that rivals any the program has faced in the past two decades.

They’re not getting one, at least not yet.

The second-ranked Zags went 6-1 in a span that included final exams and dates against four teams ranked in one of the two major polls and another, Michigan, which debuted at No. 4 after knocking off Gonzaga in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game.

Gonzaga’s last assignment before a brief holiday break is Eastern Washington at 2 p.m. Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“We’re not perfect, we’re far from it. We’re vulnerable when we don’t play smart or with great energy,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “But to do what we did in those three weeks against those opponents and most it away from home and the one at home (vs. North Carolina) with all the build-up and hype, it shows some real mental toughness.”

That said, alarm bells are practically ringing in GU players’ and coaches’ ears with the Eagles (7-3) bringing in a high-octane offense and serious motivation against the highest-ranked opponent in program history.

“Eastern’s no joke,” said Corey Kispert, who scored 26 points in the Zags’ 94-81 win over North Carolina. “They’ve been on SportsCenter in the last week dunking on dudes. The hoop is huge, they’re pouring in the points, scoring 90 a game. They have our utmost respect and focus.”

Scoreboard and scorebook operators should be busy during Saturday’s matinee. The Eagles lead the nation in scoring (90.7), rank second in assists (19.3), seventh in made 3-pointers (10.7) and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.51).

Gonzaga (12-1) counters with the most assists nationally (225), the fourth-ranked scoring offense (86.4), and are No. 6 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.53) and No. 9 in field-goal percentage (50.4). The Zags are No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency.

EWU’s three losses have come away from home against Saint Louis (80-62), Boston College (72-68) and Washington (90-80). The Eagles are 1-27 against ranked opponents, the lone win coming against No. 10 St. Joseph’s in 2001. They’ve faced third-ranked teams twice, losing by 38 to Kansas in 2007 and by 19 to Oklahoma State in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“We’re going to go in there and play with confidence,” third-year EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “They have a lot of size, and they have the top trio of big men – maybe four – who are the best in the entire country as we’ve seen them play. Our guys will be excited for that game and have been looking at it on the schedule all year long.”

The Zags’ frontcourt foursome isn’t at full strength. Freshman Anton Watson (shoulder) sat out Wednesday’s win. Senior Killian Tillie, who missed five games with a knee injury, sprained his ankle against Arizona last Saturday.

“The biggest thing for us is to rest. We’re tired right now,” Few said after the UNC game. “I think (the Eagles) have their best team in years, it looks like and sounds like. They’re going to be a handful and it comes at a time where we’ve had game after game after game. But that’s where it is, so we’ll have to deal with it.”

EWU is paced by guard Josh Davison (18.1 points), 6-foot-7 forward Kim Aiken Jr. (16.1 points, 11.8 rebounds) and 6-8 forward Mason Peatling (15.7 points, 6.9 rebounds).

EWU shattered eight school records and four Big Sky Conference records in a 146-89 rout over NAIA Multnomah on Dec. 13. The Eagles’ 146 points and Peatling’s 54 points (in 24 minutes) established EWU and Big Sky marks.

Gonzaga has won 24 straight over the Eagles, dating back to 1990. The teams meet for the first time since GU’s 77-69 win in 2011.