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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga trying to extend Gaels’ rough stretch in WCC play

Feb. 17, 2021 Updated Wed., Feb. 17, 2021 at 9:42 p.m.

Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi drives for two of his 16 points during the Bulldogs’ 73-59 West Coast Conference win over Saint Mary’s on Jan. 16 in Moraga, Calif.  (Associated Press)
Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi drives for two of his 16 points during the Bulldogs’ 73-59 West Coast Conference win over Saint Mary’s on Jan. 16 in Moraga, Calif. (Associated Press)

There’s a double-take reaction when glancing at the West Coast Conference standings.

Not at the top, where No. 1 Gonzaga (20-0, 11-0 WCC) is in its familiar position, or the next spot with perennial contender BYU sharing second with Pepperdine at 6-3. The surprise is that it takes a while to find Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels, picked third in the preseason poll, are 2-4 and eighth in winning percentage. They’re in danger of their first losing conference season since 2003 – coach Randy Bennett’s second year on the job.

That’s an unexpected development in an unusual college basketball season, but the Gaels got some good news with the release of the WCC’s new conference tournament seeding formula, based on a Ken Pomeroy-developed metric.

The Gaels were fourth in Pomeroy’s adjusted conference winning percentage, ahead of two teams with better records and two teams that are also two games under .500. Saint Mary’s benefited from strength of schedule after facing the top six teams by winning percentage.

More schedule strength is heading the Gaels’ way as they take on Gonzaga at 6 p.m. Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center – the Zags’ first home date since Jan. 23. The game will be televised on ESPN.

The first meeting showed the Gaels are capable of making things uncomfortable for the Zags. Saint Mary’s controlled the pace and boards and led by 10 after 11 minutes – the largest deficit GU has faced this season.

Gonzaga dominated the rest of the way, limiting the Gaels to 1-of-16 shooting in the final 9 minutes of the first half and pulling away for a 73-59 victory in Moraga, California.

The Zags’ 73 points remain a season low, but they shot nearly 54% from the field in a lower-possession game. The Gaels’ strategy doesn’t figure to change – limit possessions and lean on a defense that yields just 61.8 points – against a Gonzaga squad leading the nation in scoring (93.1 points) and field-goal accuracy (55.1).

Gonzaga is heavily favored to win its 47th consecutive home game, three shy of the program record. The Zags are coming off perhaps their best conference week after handling BYU 82-71 and San Francisco 100-61.

Those victories finished off an unbeaten stretch of five straight road games. The last time a WCC team played five consecutive road games was Loyola Marymount in 1981.

The Gaels continue to struggle on offense with nine straight games below 70 points since an 80-75 home win over Eastern Washington. They are shooting just 31.7% on 3-pointers, typically a strength of Bennett’s teams.

Saint Mary’s was without Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler in the January meeting. Ducas returned to the court for the first time in nearly two months in Saturday’s loss to Pepperdine. The 6-foot-6 wing is one of four Gaels averaging in double figures and he’s a capable 3-point shooter.

Bockler has been sidelined by an injury since the EWU game.

Senior point guard Tommy Kuhse is the team’s top scorer at 14.1 points and ranks second in the WCC in assists at 5.4. Guard Logan Johnson, who spent portions of his childhood in Spokane, averages 11.6 points, and 6-10 center Matthias Tass contributes 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds.

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