MORAGA, Calif. – OK, so some of the buildup to Saturday’s Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game disappeared Thursday when the Gaels clinched the second seed and a double-bye in the West Coast Conference Tournament.
But there’s always plenty to go around when these rivals collide.
For 16 seasons, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have been at the top of the WCC standings, usually in that order. The Zags have claimed 15 titles (two shared with SMC) while the Gaels are three-time champs (one outright) and 10-time runners-up.
So there’s a lot of history there. And there’s this: Gonzaga’s 94-46 beatdown of the Gaels three weeks ago was the worst loss in coach Randy Bennett’s 18 years and the fourth-most lopsided setback in program history.
“It’s going to be a good one, high-level college basketball game,” senior guard Geno Crandall said after the Zags thumped Pacific on Thursday for their 19th straight win. “Starting March the right way. We’ll be dialed in. Coaches have been talking it up all week.”
So what’s at stake?
• The Zags (28-2, 15-0 WCC) are trying to build a résumé worthy of the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They don’t get many chances for attention-grabbing WCC wins, but Saint Mary’s, No. 39 in the NET rankings, is an exception.
• Gonzaga is chasing its fifth unbeaten conference season under coach Mark Few.
• The Zags have a 27.9-point margin of victory in WCC games. Since 1998, the only team close to that margin in any Division I conference was the 2017 Zags (26.2).
• With an upset, the Gaels would have a signature win their at-large résumé desperately needs. Saint Mary’s (20-10, 11-4) is in the First Four Out in the latest bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
• The Gaels can clinch second place outright, extend their winning streak to six and atone for their pratfall in Spokane.
While Zag fans occupy a lot of seats at nearly every WCC road venue, they’ll be substantially outnumbered inside cozy, 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion.
“I’m sure it’ll be a great atmosphere,” said Few, whose squad has won 14 of the past 17 against the Gaels. “They get the No. 1 team in the country playing in their barn.”
Gonzaga made it look easy in the first meeting, bolting to a 53-20 halftime lead. Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura combined for 42 points. The Zags shot 58 percent from the field.
GU stifled junior guard Jordan Ford (eight points) and sophomore forward Malik Fitts (11). The Gaels managed just one assist, shot 26 percent, and the WCC’s top 3-point shooting team didn’t hit from distance for 37-plus minutes.
The Zags would love to repeat those stats, but Saint Mary’s certainly will try to make adjustments to avoid experiencing another nightmare, including something to free up Ford (21.3 points) and Fitts (15.9 points, 7.7 rebounds).
“It happens to everybody. Everybody has off nights,” said Crandall, who joined Josh Perkins in slowing down Ford. “We tried to pressure him as much as we could, take away some of the moves he likes to get to. Just a concerted effort to not let him beat us.
“Cut the head off the snake, in a sense, and try to make some of the other guys beat us.”
The Zags did that, and kept Fitts in check. The South Florida transfer made only 5 of 12 shots. He’s averaging 17.3 points in conference play, but he’s been in a mini slump (12 of 33 field goals, 11.7 points over his past three games).
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