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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga returns home to face ‘super skilled’ Santa Clara squad

Feb. 1, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 1, 2023 at 7:35 p.m.

If you prefer to look at it with a glass half full, Gonzaga’s streak-busting loss to Loyola Marymount on Jan. 19 may have come with a few silver linings.

In their first game back at the Kennel since losing 68-67 to the Lions, the Bulldogs should be motivated to avenge their first home defeat since Feb. 22, 2020, and start a new home streak when they host Santa Clara on Thursday – a game and opponent they may have been inclined to overlook with a rivalry matchup against No. 18 Saint Mary’s around the corner.

It’s likely the LMU loss also heightened Gonzaga’s sense of urgency.

Now at the midway point of WCC play, the Bulldogs (18-4, 7-1) have eight conference games remaining and a loss to the Broncos (16-7, 4-4) could give Saint Mary’s – depending how the Gaels fare Thursday against San Francisco – a two-game buffer at the top of the standings entering Saturday’s showdown in Moraga, California.

Even without everything that’s at stake, Santa Clara should warrant Gonzaga’s full attention.

The Broncos are one of four WCC teams that has held a second-half lead against the Bulldogs this season.

Herb Sendek’s group was in front for a total of 22 minutes, 27 seconds – more time than LMU led in its upset of GU – before Nolan Hickman rescued the Zags with a late go-ahead 3-pointer to help secure an 81-76 win on Jan. 7 at the Leavey Center.

“They’re a really, really good team, man,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’ve got size, they have ability to really stretch the floor and shoot with (Keshawn) Justice. The point guard (Carlos Stewart) is playing terrific. Yeah, they’ve got a nice squad. The transfer kid (Brandin Podziemski) has been a revelation, so that’ll be quite a battle.”

Santa Clara bounced back from the Gonzaga loss with consecutive wins over Pacific on the road and BYU at home, but the Broncos enter the second game against the Bulldogs coming off a road loss to Saint Mary’s and a home loss to Pacific.

After conceding 17 3-pointers in a 95-89 loss to Pacific, Santa Clara will have to tighten things up on the defensive end to limit Gonzaga, which is averaging 88.4 points per game in conference play – 10 more than second-place Pacific.

“When you look at the mirror, you cannot be pleased with our defensive effort,” Sendek said after the Pacific loss. “ They were at the game, they know what happened and they know the game was decided on the defensive end of the floor for us.”

The Zags have the firepower to make the Broncos pay from the 3-point line, with four players connecting on 35% or better : Malachi Smith (54.5%), Julian Strawther (43.5%), Rasir Bolton (39.2%) and Nolan Hickman (35.2%). Strawther’s shooting percentage ballooned after the junior made 8 of 12 on 3s while scoring a career-high 40 points in Saturday’s 82-67 win at Portland.

Santa Clara went shot for shot with Gonzaga in the first matchup. The Broncos’ offensive approach – largely centered around three players – hasn’t changed since the teams played on Jan. 7.

Thursday’s game features not one, but two guard/wing players who are coming off career outings. Hours after Strawther scored 40 points for Gonzaga, Santa Clara’s Podziemski scored 38 against Pacific, making 13 of 21 from the field and 6 of 11 from the 3-point line. That bumped the sophomore guard and Illinois transfer ahead of Gonzaga’s Drew Timme as the WCC’s leading scorer (21.7 points per game).

Stewart averages another 15.0 ppg for Santa Clara while Justice is averaging 13.6 ppg. The Broncos’ success is largely dependent on the success of those three. Sendek’s team ranks No. 328 nationally in bench points, averaging only 13.3 per game.

“It’s a great team. Super-skilled squad,” Strawther said. “Lot of scorers, lot of shooters and the way the game went down there at their place, I know they’re hungry to come back and try to get one at ours.”

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