LAS VEGAS – There are few postseason shortcuts, so it’s not a surprise that second-ranked Gonzaga will be challenged immediately by an opponent that gave the Zags fits during the regular season.
San Francisco has pushed the Zags harder than any West Coast Conference foe other than BYU, which handed Gonzaga its lone conference loss.
The Dons led the two regular-season meetings at half by a combined 17 points. They led on their home court inside the final two minutes before Corey Kispert connected on two clutch baskets, lifting the Zags to an 83-79 win. Gonzaga outscored USF 49-23 in the second half of a 71-54 victory in Spokane.
The third encounter comes Monday in the WCC Tournament semifinals at Orleans Arena. Top-seeded Gonzaga (29-2) is trying to advance to the championship game for the 23rd consecutive season. Fifth-seeded San Francisco (22-11) is trying to take a large step toward joining GU, BYU and Saint Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 2 BYU and No. 3 Saint Mary’s, which outlasted No. 6 Pepperdine 89-82 in double overtime late Saturday night, tangle in the second semifinal.
Gonzaga hasn’t played since concluding an unbeaten home season with an 86-76 win over Saint Mary’s on Feb. 29. It’s a well-timed break after the four-month regular season.
“For sure, I need that (break),” said senior forward Killian Tillie, who is five points from reaching 1,000 in his career.
The Zags are one win from securing their fourth straight 30-win season and sixth in the past eight years. Those are the only 30-win seasons in program history.
Gonzaga is two wins from all but locking up the No. 1 seed in the West Region. The overall No. 1 seed is probably out of reach, even if No. 1 Kansas stumbles in the Big 12 Tournament.
The Dons are riding a five-game winning streak, but they’ve lost 17 in a row to Gonzaga.
“Honestly, we were looking forward to this one,” USF junior guard Charles Minlend said. “We didn’t want to say it because we knew we had to win the first two games (of the tournament), but this is the game we wanted.”
San Francisco reached the semifinals after an 82-53 rout over Loyola Marymount on Friday and a 72-54 victory over fourth-seeded Pacific on Saturday.
First-year coach Todd Golden called it the Dons’ best two-game stretch of the season.
“The reality is we’ve had two cracks at Gonzaga,” Golden said. “We played 20 great minutes in each of those games. The thing we’ve been stressing over the past couple of weeks is to play a full 40. The first two games of the tournament we’ve done that.
“It’s obviously going to be a bigger challenge against Gonzaga, but that’s going to be our goal.”
Senior center Jimbo Lull, who averages 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds, has bumped those averages to 13.5 and 9.3 over the last four games. The 7-footer hasn’t had much luck against Gonzaga’s frontcourt and WCC Player of the Year Filip Petrusev, scoring just 13 points in two outings.
“It makes us really dynamic,” Minlend said of Lull’s improved play recently. “He’s a problem, and people have been trying to figure it out, and they’re going to keep trying, because we’re going to keep looking to feed him the ball.”
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