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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Revenge-minded San Francisco brings ‘potent offense’ to Gonzaga after nearly clipping Bulldogs last month

Feb. 8, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 8, 2023 at 8:48 p.m.

Gonzaga will be playing with a certain vengeance when it takes the court for the second time later this season against Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary’s – the only teams to beat them in West Coast Conference play so far.

This week, they’re hosting a pair of teams that can relate to that feeling after losing to the Bulldogs in gut-wrenching fashion last month.

Gonzaga beat San Francisco and BYU by three combined points in road games at War Memorial Gym and the Marriott Center, needing a late flurry from Rasir Bolton – and winning putback – to overcome the Dons 77-75 on Jan. 5 before edging the Cougars a week later on Julian Strawther’s go-ahead 3-pointer and a key defensive stand from Anton Watson.

San Francisco (15-11, 4-7) will be the first team with a chance at retribution when the Dons visit No. 15 Gonzaga (19-5, 8-2) Thursday. The Bulldogs will honor Dan Dickau’s No. 21 in a pregame ceremony at the Kennel.

“Every team in the WCC wants to beat us, especially on our home court,” Watson said. “I think they’re going to come out fighting. San Fran’s a good team, obviously. They gave us a fight, they just gave Saint Mary’s a fight. They’re a good team, so we’ve got to take them seriously. I think we’ll be prepared for that.”

Whether the Bulldogs will be at full strength is another question.

If starting point guard Nolan Hickman isn’t healthy to play, Gonzaga may have to deploy a new starting lineup for the first time in 25 games. Hickman landed awkwardly on one foot while driving to the basket in Saturday’s game at Saint Mary’s and didn’t return to the game after appearing to hurt his foot/ankle.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said it was too early to give a prognosis on Hickman after the 78-70 overtime loss in Moraga, California, he doesn’t normally hold a midweek media availability.

Although the Zags’ backcourt has been inconsistent at times, it’s thought to be the deepest group on the team. The Bulldogs have multiple players capable of shouldering point guard responsibilities if Hickman isn’t available.

Malachi Smith, a Chattanooga graduate transfer, has been scoring and rebounding at a higher clip for the Zags than Hickman, averaging 8.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists while playing 20.8 minutes per game off GU’s bench.

The Bulldogs can also put the ball in the hands of sophomore Hunter Sallis, a defensive specialist who’s spelled Hickman at point guard this season and who made a series of key defensive plays in the Saint Mary’s loss. Sallis is averaging 4.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg and 1.5 apg.

The backcourt tends to be where teams start when preparing for the Dons. After scoring 17 points in the first game against Gonzaga, senior guard Khalil Shabazz went on an offensive slump, averaging 10 points over USF’s next four games. In the four games since, Shabazz is averaging 23.5 ppg and he’s made 27 of 29 free throws .

Shabazz is coming off a 31-point game against Santa Clara. Washington State transfer Tyrell Roberts recently hit the 30-point mark against BYU, going 14 for 16 from the free-throw line in an 82-74 win.

“They’re a really, really potent offense,” Few said of USF. “I mean Shabazz, he can hit a variety of shots.”

USF’s frontcourt players, namely 7-foot former WSU center Volodymyr Markovetskyy, held Gonzaga All-American Drew Timme in check when the teams last met. Timme scored in double figures, but had the least-efficient game as a college starter, making just 3 of 16 shots from the field.

The Zags were trailing by double figures in the second half before Bolton went on a late tear, scoring 11 points inside the final 6 minutes, including the winning follow shot with 7 seconds left.

“Their bigs played really good, too,” Few said. “They were a physical group and they played really good and we were lucky to get out of there with a win. So it’s going to be a tough one.”

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