Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Clash of styles: Offensive-minded Gonzaga tangles with Saint Mary’s tough defense

Feb. 3, 2023 Updated Fri., Feb. 3, 2023 at 9:01 p.m.

MORAGA, Calif. – Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his most experienced players will watch a bunch of video on Saint Mary’s, but at this point it probably wouldn’t be required to know what the Zags are up against in Saturday’s showdown.

The Gaels have put together two decades of success with a game plan that rarely deviates under coach Randy Bennett, who earned his 500th career victory when Saint Mary’s held off San Francisco 68-59 on Thursday.

It’s hardly flashy, but the 18th-ranked Gaels (20-4, 9-0 West Coast Conference) are efficient on offense and rely on one of the best defensive units in Bennett’s 22 seasons.

That’s in contrast to No. 12 Gonzaga (19-4, 8-1), which prefers a swifter pace, averages a national-best 86.4 points and has shown modest improvement recently with its work-in-progress defense.

“They’re just incredibly solid at what they do,” Few said. “It’s nothing crazy, they’re just incredibly disciplined and they’re solid in their approach. They’re very together and they’re physical, like all of (Bennett’s) teams.

“They’re into the ball, four guys in the gaps, shrink the floor really well, play our posts physical. Just the same thing they’ve been doing all those years. He just plugs in different guys.”

This will be the first of two regular-season meetings – the next one is in Spokane on Feb. 25 to close the conference regular season – that could decide the WCC title chase.

It’s been that way for roughly two decades. The results have favored the Zags in Few’s 23 seasons with 19 solo titles and two shared with Bennett’s Gaels. Saint Mary’s won one outright championship in 2012.

Few holds a 51-12 record against Saint Mary’s. Bennett is 12-45 vs. Gonzaga, which accounts for nearly as many victories as the 15 by the seven other programs in the conference during Bennett’s tenure. BYU, which joined the WCC in the 2011-12 season, has knocked off the Zags seven times.

The roles are reversed at present with the Gaels holding a one-game lead and the Zags suffering their first loss to a WCC foe not named Saint Mary’s or BYU since 2014 when they fell 68-67 to LMU.

Gonzaga, though, is 8-1 in the series when both teams are ranked, all but one of those victories by double digits. No. 23 Saint Mary’s defeated No. 1 GU 67-57 in last February in Moraga.

The Gaels are favored by 1.5 points, according to BetOnline.

“They are annoying,” Zags’ All-American Drew Timme said in a light-hearted manner. “No, they’re a great team, super disciplined, they don’t beat themselves, they use all the shot clock, know what type of shot they want and know how to get to it.

“Defensively, they’re super connected. They take forever to get to where they want to be, but it’s exactly how they want it. That place is going to be packed. Great environment, it’s a great rivalry. It’s going to be a bruiser, for sure. If we don’t come with our A game, they will.”

Saint Mary’s allows just 57.2 points per game, fourth nationally and just behind defensive-minded Houston at two and Tennessee at three. The Gaels lost to then No. 1 Houston 53-48 in early December.

Saint Mary’s isn’t a high-scoring outfit (71.3 points per game), but it frequently exploits defensive lapses. Gonzaga will have to be sound with on-ball defense, close-outs and covering their assignments. Another key will be defending for most of the 30-second shot clock against the patient Gaels.

“They play like the old dudes at pickup,” Gonzaga senior forward Anton Watson said. “They use the shot clock and pass it until they get a good shot. We definitely have to lock into the defense.

“Every time we go down there, it’s packed. They’ve got dudes yelling at us. Those are the type of games we love playing in. It’s going to be a fun game.”

It’ll certainly be a challenging one.

“He has done an amazing, incredible job,” Few said of Bennett. “It’s a real credit to him for what he’s been able to build.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Follow along with the Zags

Subscribe to our Gonzaga Basketball newsletter to stay up with the latest news.