Randy Bennett might know Gonzaga’s program better than any opposing coach in the country.
He’s in year 20 at Saint Mary’s with 52 games under his belt against Gonzaga and counterpart Mark Few. Bennett is 11-41 against the Zags, so he’s cracked the code more than most.
The Gaels were competitive nearly from start to finish in Saturday’s 73-59 loss, but extended scoring droughts proved costly.
“We didn’t necessarily play great, but we competed well,” Bennett said after the Zags’ fifth straight win in Moraga. “You’ve got to generate some points against those guys because they’re going to score. We’ve been pretty good defensively this year. We’re getting better.”
What’s it going to take to knock off the top-ranked Zags?
“You have to play an A-plus game,” Bennett said bluntly, “and hope they roll out a B-minus or a C.”
The Gaels don’t have their typical collection of weapons offensively, but they should get a boost if/when Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler, two of their top 3-point shooters, return from injuries.
Bennett has found ways to make up ground on the Zags in some seasons, including a stunning 60-47 upset of No. 1 Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC tournament title game, roughly a month after losing to the Zags by 48 points.
The Gaels’ task appears more daunting against the current Zags.
“We haven’t finished games,” Bennett said. “We’re going to have to learn how to do that, but I think we’re headed in the right direction. (The Zags) are not going to lose too many – if any.”
Zags have WCC foes on the run
Gonzaga has handled BYU, Saint Mary’s, Pepperdine and San Francisco by comfortable margins early in the WCC season.
If you’re scoring at home, those are the four teams picked behind the Bulldogs in the preseason poll. All four showed they can play with the Zags for 10-, 20- or 25-minute segments, but not for the long haul of 40 minutes.
The Gaels gave it a go for most of Saturday’s loss, but they were undone by the same thing that’s happened to all of the Zags’ closest conference pursuers: An inevitable GU scoring run. It was a similar story for ranked and unranked opponents on Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule.
Gonzaga defeated the WCC preseason Nos. 2-5 by an average of 19.7 points. Their biggest leads in each: 18 vs. Saint Mary’s, 26 vs. Pepperdine, 32 against BYU and 29 vs. San Francisco.
Bursts that proved decisive: 20-3 to end the first half against the Gaels, 22-6 early in the second half vs. the Waves, 23-2 to open the game against the Cougars and 7-0 in the last 70 seconds of the first half vs. the Dons.
“If we get to the half (in) a tie game, it’s a little different,” Bennett said. “We gave them a (seven-point) cushion. That’s what I’ll rehash over and over. We’ve got to close that half better. We were up 10 in the first half. We need to get in at halftime at least even.”
Gonzaga has shown it can deal with long road trips, an extended layoff due to COVID-19 protocols, back-to-back contests, swift schedule changes and various styles of play from opponents.
After all that, a rare week between games doesn’t sound too bad. Few said the Zags looked and played tired after Saturday’s win so a short break might be timely to hit the refresh button.
Gonzaga hasn’t ruled out lining up another quality nonconference matchup and the early part of this week and early February seem to be the best options after the Feb. 6 game vs. BYU was moved up to Jan. 7.
“We’re ready for whatever comes our way,” sophomore forward Drew Timme said. “I don’t think anybody is opposed to a break. I know it wouldn’t hurt anything and it might be nice to get off our feet a little bit. But our breaks, we still get after it and put in our work every single day so it’s just business as usual.”
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