MORAGA, Calif. – Gonzaga pummeled Saint Mary’s twice last season, including a 94-46 beatdown that ranked as the most lopsided in Gaels coach Randy Bennett’s 18 seasons.
It was good times for the Bulldogs and their fan base in the decade-plus rivalry with Saint Mary’s, the only team to occasionally crack GU’s stranglehold on the West Coast Conference regular season and conference tournament championships.
The not-so-good times in Zagville: The third meeting, when Saint Mary’s stunned then No. 1 Gonzaga 60-47 for the WCC Tournament title and earned an unexpected spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Killian Tillie and Corey Kispert are the only current Zags that played in the contest. Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi watched from the bench.
“I will never forget that,” said Kispert, following Gonzaga’s 85-67 win over Loyola Marymount on Thursday. “They have a lot of swagger, a lot of confidence and they think they have the recipe to beat the Zags. As it stands right now, they have our number, and we’re going down there to take it back.”
That will be a sizable task in Saturday’s showdown, even for a program that boasts the nation’s longest active road winning streak (16), the third-longest active winning streak (16) and the No. 1 scoring offense (88.3).
Saint Mary’s (20-5, 7-3 WCC) shares second with BYU, three games behind Gonzaga (24-1, 10-0). The Gaels returned the majority of their firepower from last season. They’re anchored by a strong inside-outside tandem. Guard Jordan Ford and forward Malik Fitts account for nearly 38 points per game, essentially half of the team’s 76.8 average.
Both are excellent 3-point shooters on a team that ranks second nationally at 41.7% beyond the arc, even after a frosty 1-of-15 effort against San Diego on Thursday.
“Fitts is playing great, Ford has always been great,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Fitts has just been superb when I’ve watched, scoring off the bounce, hitting deep 3s.
“Again, another one of those forwards that’s a tough matchup because he can really space you, but he’s quick enough, big enough and strong enough to kind of hurt you around the basket.”
Other Gaels trademarks: Patience, limit turnovers and limit possessions.
“They have a couple of really good 1-on-1 players,” Kispert said. “Jordan’s a really good player and Fitts can score in bunches, too. They’re just methodical. They don’t take bad shots and they make you beat them.”
Saint Mary’s will be challenged by Gonzaga’s balance – six players in double figures – transition game and powerful frontcourt led by Petrusev’s 17.2 points, Tillie’s 12.6 and Drew Timme, who has bumped his scoring average to 9.9.
“If they get easy baskets, it’s going to be tough,” Bennett told the San Francisco Chronicle. “So you’ve got to do all you can to control what you can: taking care of the ball, getting back on ‘D’, having a plan on how you defend their posts and their on-balls. It’s not a simple one, that’s for sure.”
Tillie has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle. He was available to play against LMU but didn’t leave the bench as the Zags opened up a comfortable lead in the second half.
“The more days that go by, the better it gets,” Few said. “We’ll see where he’s at on Saturday.”
In Gonzaga’s past two games, Petrusev has drawn 20 fouls from defenders and Timme 10.
“I could see our guys battling and for some reason not being able to get the edge,” Petrusev said of last year’s championship game. “Those guys out-toughed us and outplayed us. Every time Saint Mary’s does that to us it hurts. It’s definitely huge motivation, especially Corey and Killian. They really felt it after that game.”
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