SAN DIEGO – For a team that does a lot of winning, Gonzaga sometimes finds itself in something of a no-win situation.
Win big, as the Zags have done in most West Coast Conference contests, and skeptics rail about the shortcomings of the conference. Win close, and the Zags gets an earful for allowing a lesser team to hang around.
The former was the case recently after Gonzaga pounded its four closest pursuers. The latter was the case after Gonzaga needed a 13-2 closing kick to outlast Loyola Marymount 73-60 on Thursday.
Coach Mark Few has heard it all before. He’s been a critic of the conference at times in recent years, but he’s been quick to point out the WCC’s strides this season.
“What we probably all have to do is take a step back,” Few said. “These teams are a lot better in our league. They’re older, they’re bigger, they’re tougher. They’ve got good players.
“The depth of the league is much better. There might not be another Top-25 team like maybe Saint Mary’s has been in the past, but there’s a stack of them that I think are top 100, including (LMU). I think that’s being misinterpreted a little bit.”
Taking a peek ahead to Saturday’s game against San Diego at a sold-out Jenny Craig Pavilion, Few suggested, “I think Saturday will be a lot like this (Thursday).”
The Toreros (16-10, 5-6 WCC) start four seniors, feature a 1-2 scoring punch in Isaiah Pineiro (19.3 points) and Olin Carter III (16.2), and have a quality point guard in Isaiah Wright (13.1 points, 4.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds).
They put scares into Washington, Oregon and Ole Miss in nonconference play.
They’ve slipped to fifth place in the WCC after blowing late leads in their past two games. Pepperdine scored the last six points to edge USD 70-67. The Toreros led BYU by 14 in the second half Thursday before falling to the Cougars in overtime.
USD has never defeated a top-10 team.
No. 3 Gonzaga (24-2, 11-0), one victory from its 12th consecutive 25-win season, had rebounding and defensive lapses against the Lions but cleaned those up in crunch time.
“We’re going to have to come out stronger, come out with a bit more toughness instead of just bringing it in the last 6 minutes,” forward Brandon Clarke said.
Echoed Zach Norvell Jr., who hit a pair of late 3-pointers to help subdue the Lions: “Understanding that things can get ugly like that if we don’t come and play physical. Just trying to change that around for Saturday and be ready to bring the fight to them.”
That goes for GU’s guards and bigs. Clarke and Rui Hachimura combined for 39 points and 19 rebounds, but LMU also had success inside (38 paint points) and on the offensive glass (15, leading to 18 second-chance points).
“Sometimes Rui needs to understand he has to bring it. People are excited to play against him,” Few said. “He tiptoes into a bar fight once in a while. You don’t want to tiptoe into a bar fight or you’re going to get your ass kicked.
“He’s still learning a valuable lesson there, but the beauty of it is now he’s old enough to kind of change in midstream and amp up his intensity.”
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