Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s heading in different directions as they renew rivalry
Jan. 15, 2021 Updated Fri., Jan. 15, 2021 at 10:14 p.m.
This is uncharted territory for No. 1 Gonzaga and West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s.
The Bulldogs’ dynamic offense seems to break a record with every outing. After Thursday’s 95-70 win over Pepperdine, the Zags have scored at least 85 points in 13 consecutive games, the longest Division I streak in the past 14 seasons.
The Gaels, who broke Gonzaga’s stranglehold on regular-season titles with an outright championship in 2012 and shared crowns with the Zags in 2011 and 2016, are 0-2 in conference for the first time since opening the 2005-06 season 0-3.
Saint Mary’s is coming off a disheartening home loss that illustrated some of its offensive issues. The Gaels led BYU 50-43 with 10 minutes, 30 seconds left and didn’t score again until Logan Johnson’s field goal with 45 seconds left. The Cougars closed with a 19-2 run for a 62-52 victory.
The Zags (13-0, 4-0 WCC) bounced back from a choppy first half to outscore the Waves 52-31 in final 20 minutes.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s renew one of the best rivalries in the West at 7 p.m. Saturday, but the Zags have won nine of the last 11 – all by double figures – over the past five seasons, including a 90-60 pummeling a year ago at UCU Pavilion in Moraga, California.
More than numbers, coach Mark Few is concerned with the Gaels’ deliberate style and if his Zags’ defense can create turnovers to fuel its transition game.
“They’re just so consistent with what they do,” Few said. “It’s usually them and Virginia right around 350th in possessions (per game) or pace of play and we’re up there at one or two. It’s definitely a clash of that, and they do a great job of sticking with it.”
The Gaels (9-4, 0-2) have always been patient on offense under 20-year head coach Randy Bennett, but this is one of the rare years they don’t have their typical collection of 3-point threats and proven All-WCC-caliber bigs.
Senior point guard Tommy Kuhse has been an iron man, averaging 35.8 minutes, and produces 14.5 points and 5.5 assists. Wing Alex Ducas hasn’t played since injuring his foot on Dec. 19 and the Gaels have missed his 10.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3-pointers (36.4%).
Johnson chips in 10.7 points and Estonian center Matthias Tass, returning from a torn ACL last season, contributes 9.9 points and 5.2 boards.
The Zags had few issues against Virginia’s methodical approach, forcing 15 turnovers that generated 27 points in a 98-75 victory.
“The guy this year is Kuhse, it seems like he’s been around six years,” Few said of the redshirt senior. “He knows exactly what Randy wants and that offense requires. I assume they’ll really try to keep long possessions and Kuhse will dribble around in there until he gets a shot or pass he likes.
“They’ll have their post, it doesn’t matter who they are, but they’re really big and physical and if you play them 1-on-1 they’ll back you down and get to a jump hook. Hopefully, our defense will be up to that. Hopefully, we can create some opportunities with our defense to get us out running, much like we did in the Virginia game.”
The Gaels’ defense faces a GU offense that leads the nation in scoring, efficiency and field-goal percentage. Six Zags, led by Corey Kispert’s 21.5 points, average in double digits.
“It’s super fun to play there when there’s fans and they pack the house,” said Kispert, who has lined up against Saint Mary’s eight times in his career. “Playing in a quiet gym is going to be really different. It’s kind of disappointing, but it’s the same old Saint Mary’s. … They run the same things they normally do so it’s kind of business as usual for us and for me especially.”
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