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Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s: Clash of contrasting styles in WCC Tournament semifinals

UPDATED: Sun., March 7, 2021

Gonzaga freshman point guard Jalen Suggs fights to keep control of the ball amid swarming Saint Mary’s defenders at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Feb. 18.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Gonzaga freshman point guard Jalen Suggs fights to keep control of the ball amid swarming Saint Mary’s defenders at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Feb. 18. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

They collide nearly every March at the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas after two regular-season meetings.

The coaching staffs could probably forward their scouting reports to each other, because nobody knows Saint Mary’s better than Gonzaga and vice versa.

Here we go again: The Zags and Gaels tangle at 6 p.m. in Monday’s semifinals at Orleans Arena in another clash of styles between longtime rivals.

Fourth-seeded Saint Mary’s (14-8) offered a 40-minute example of its deliberate, defensive-minded approach Saturday with a 52-47 win over Loyola Marymount.

“A little ugly,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “We haven’t shot it well this year, we lost a couple real good shooters, so we just kind of had to adapt to playing this way. We’ve become a really good defensive team, but a lot of our games end up like this. We are who we are. We have to give ourselves the best chance to win, and that’s our best chance to win.”

No. 1 Gonzaga, meanwhile, leads the nation in scoring (92.9), field-goal percentage (55.3), two-point percentage (64.4) and paint points (51.2).

Gonzaga has dominated the series in the regular season – 48-11 under coach Mark Few – and in the tournament – 5-1 since 2013. The Gaels are the only team to defeat GU in the tournament since 2008, with title-game victories in 2010 and 2012 and a 60-47 shocker over the top-ranked Zags in 2019.

“The conference tournament just amps up several notches, and some teams are playing for their lives to survive and play in the greatest sporting event in the world,” Few said. “We’ll have to fight that, and that’s not an easy fight. You know you’re in (the NCAA Tournament) and a No. 1 seed, and in this case you know where you’re going (Indianapolis).

“So you’re essentially playing for pride, but these guys will be fine.”

The Gaels successfully slowed the pace in the first meeting, limiting Gonzaga to a season-low 73 points. They led by 10 near the midpoint of the first half before Gonzaga’s offense and defense took control in a 73-59 victory.

The Zags had 73 points with 10:21 remaining in the rematch. They led by as many as 38 and coasted home 87-65.

“It’s always the same,” Bennett said. “You have to keep them out of transition. If you don’t keep them out of transition, get your bags packed because you’re not going to beat them.”

Saint Mary’s finished 4-6 in conference play, its worst record since Bennett’s second season in 2003. The Gaels followed their formula to win three of their last four by scores of 66-61, 58-46 and 52-47.

Junior guard Logan Johnson has emerged as the top scoring option (13.4) with point guard Tommy Kuhse (12.5 points, 4.9 assists) and center Matthias Tass (10.9 points, 5.3 rebounds) steady contributors.

The Zags, who haven’t played since Senior Night on Feb. 27, have won 23 consecutive WCC semifinal games. GU has won 28 straight games, dating back to last season, and a victory Monday would match the 2017 team for the longest streak in program history.

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