SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Mark Few would gladly accept being wrong.
Shortly after his second-ranked Bulldogs crushed Pacific last Saturday, Gonzaga’s head coach was questioned about the upcoming road trip to the Bay Area to face Santa Clara and San Francisco.
“That’s going to be a tricky trip,” he said. “I know we had our way with Santa Clara here (104-54 on Jan. 16) but it seems like it’s always a game in their building. They’re kind of moving themselves up into that upper echelon (of the conference).”
Yes and no. The Zags (21-1, 7-0 WCC) have owned the series with 20 straight wins, but they’ve had several close calls at the Leavey Center, site of Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. contest. There was a 12-point win in 2015, a 79-77 nail-biter the ensuing year and a 75-60 decision in 2018.
There was also a 31-point rout in 2017 and a 59-point dismantling last season. The memorable thing from last year’s 98-39 runaway wasn’t the margin but the fact that Gonzaga finished with a record-low two turnovers.
“I expect two really hard road games,” concluded Few, after mentioning San Francisco’s comeback win over BYU last Saturday.
Santa Clara (17-5, 4-3) appears capable of offering a tougher test with its experienced lineup, despite no seniors on the roster, and a balanced offense led by sophomore guard Trey Wertz (12.8 points, 3.7 assists) and junior forward Josip Vrankic (12.1 points, 5.1 rebounds. 3.2 assists).
The Broncos’ nifty record was constructed with a home-heavy schedule against fairly light opposition. Fifteen of their 17 wins have come at the Leavey Center. Their 17-game home winning streak was clipped by Pepperdine last week.
The Broncos sit in a four-way tie for third place with BYU, Pepperdine and San Francisco.
Gonzaga has pummeled its past five opponents, staying dialed in despite being heavy favorites. The Zags have won a nation-best 14 consecutive road games.
“Every road trip is tough, that’s motivation itself,” sophomore forward Filip Petrusev said. “We’re trying to beat everybody, trying to be No. 1 in the country, trying to win every game and no slip-ups.”
Senior forward Killian Tillie has been a key reason for Gonzaga’s domination thus far in conference play. He’s scored at least 20 points in four of his past seven games.
Tillie leads the Zags in scoring in conference (15.6 points). He’s shooting 54%, including 42.3% behind the 3-point line. He’s swatted 12 shots, tied for first with Pacific’s James Hampshire.
“My teammates are doing a good job finding me,” Tillie said. “Other teams (have) been switching a lot on me. I like that; just keep switching on me and I’m going to get 20 every game.”
Still, the Zags would be wise not to expect another cakewalk. Santa Clara figures to be comfortable and more confident on its home floor.
The Broncos are unlikely to repeat their season-low 30.4% field-goal shooting and 12% from distance from the first meeting.
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