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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga eyeing unbeaten regular season in Senior Night matchup vs. Loyola Marymount

Feb. 26, 2021 Updated Fri., Feb. 26, 2021 at 10:31 p.m.

It will be a Senior Night like no other to close a college basketball regular season like no other.

COVID-19 has disrupted schedules and game times and undoubtedly will make Senior Night look and sound much different than past seasons when Gonzaga entertains Loyola Marymount at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.

None of which diminishes the contributions of Corey Kispert, who has become one of the all-time Zags, and grad transfer Aaron Cook, or the pursuit of the school’s first undefeated regular season.

“People tell you it goes by fast,” said Kispert, who will have five relatives in attendance at the McCarthey Athletic Center. “You don’t believe them until you’re sitting where I’m sitting. Blink of an eye.

“Last week B-Mike (assistant coach Brian Michaelson) came up to me and said, ‘Well, what do you want to do on Senior Night?’ It’s interesting to hear that. Usually, there’s a set plan and it’s not going to be anything like that. We just have to focus on the game because a lot of the normal stuff isn’t going to happen.”

Kispert returned for his senior season rather than remain in the draft as a projected second-round pick. The 6-foot-7 wing has had one of the finest seasons in program history – 19.3 points, 55.8% from the field, 43.5% on 3-pointers and 88% at the foul line. Mock drafts list him as a first-rounder and possibly a lottery pick.

“He’s the epitome of a college athlete,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He’s a poster child for the term student-athlete, great student, great ambassador for the program, our school and college athletics in general.”

Few was just getting started about Kispert, a finalist for multiple awards and a probable All-American who is in the discussion for player of the year.

“He’s a leader that doesn’t just take that very loosely,” Few said. “He studies it and works on it, incredible worker. And look, an incredible player. He’s played himself into a high pick in the draft coming up, and it’s all been because of the work, the time he’s put in and his growth physically and mentally.

“He’s just an unbelievable guy.”

Cook was a double-figures scorer in his past three seasons at Southern Illinois before joining Gonzaga as a graduate transfer. He played in only six games last season due to a broken right hand.

Cook was solid off the bench in marquee nonconference wins over Kansas, Iowa, Auburn and Virginia. He’s been a major factor in several West Coast Conference games, including Saint Mary’s, Pepperdine, San Francisco and Saturday’s hard-fought win over Santa Clara.

“I’m really proud of him,” Few said of Cook. “He’s rolled in here and adjusted so well to all the in-depth stuff we do, which is very different than what he did at Southern Illinois – how we guard, how we play, the pace we play at, it’s a total night-and-day deal.

“He’s given us a spark so many times coming off the bench. He’s really settled into his role.”

Seniors across the country have choices to make with the NCAA’s decision in October to allow seniors an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic. Kispert obviously appears to be bound for the NBA while Cook’s plans for next season are unknown.

The top-ranked Zags (23-0, 14-0 WCC) have rolled to 22 wins by double figures. A victory over LMU would mark Division I’s first undefeated regular season since Kentucky in 2015.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” freshman point guard Jalen Suggs said. “When you’re on top, everyone wants to knock you off. Coming in and taking every game one at a time, knowing that if we play to our standards and stay true to ourselves that we have a chance to come out with a win every night.

“That’s exactly how we’re approaching Saturday. We’re not looking too much at the record or trying to go undefeated, but coming in Saturday night, handling business there and being in the moment.”

Senior Night opponent LMU (12-7, 7-4) has made some noise with four wins in its past five games since returning from a COVID pause. The Lions are third in the conference standings, but they’re fifth in the WCC’s new seeding formula.

The Lions present similar challenges as Santa Clara, which had Gonzaga’s bigs in first-half foul trouble and pushed the Zags deep into the second half before falling 89-75 Saturday. LMU has size and versatility in the frontcourt and at the wing with Eli Scott (6-6, 232 pounds), center Mattias Markusson (7-3, 265), Keli Leaupepe (6-6, 248) and Ivan Alipiev (6-8, 215).

“This whole weekend is about that,” Few said. “Both these teams we’re playing are big and physical, so that’s going to be a real challenge for us.”

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