Gonzaga puts 10-game winning streak on line against healthier Portland squad
Jan. 13, 2023 Updated Fri., Jan. 13, 2023 at 6:45 p.m.
After three straight white-knuckle West Coast Conference road victories, it might save Gonzaga and insert future opponent’s name time if they agree to fast forward to the final 5 minutes for another dramatic conclusion.
But rules are rules and besides, that would rob fans of the full GU 40-minute experience and rotating star-of-the-game approach that helped the Zags outlast San Francisco, Santa Clara and BYU.
As head coach Mark Few reiterated to the media after Thursday’s 75-74 thriller over BYU, “One of these days you’ll listen to the old ball coach” – his latest reminder that the Zags are going to be in numerous late-game tussles because their margin of error is smaller compared to past teams.
So be prepared for anything when Portland stops by the McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday. The Pilots (9-10, 1-3 WCC) and eighth-ranked Zags (15-3, 4-0) haven’t seen each other since they were in different brackets at the Phil Knight holiday tournament in November.
At that time, the Pilots battled three high-profile programs – barely losing to No. 1 North Carolina and Michigan State and handling Villanova – while the Zags went 2-1, but were thumped by 18 by Purdue, which eventually climbed to No. 1 in the AP rankings.
Both teams have been on a roller-coaster ride over the past seven weeks. Gonzaga slid to No. 18 in the poll with a 5-3 start before rattling off 10 consecutive wins. The Pilots slumped after injuries to Moses Wood, Tyler Robertson and Mike Meadows, but their injury list is shrinking with return of Wood and Robertson.
Robertson, Wood and junior forward Kristian Sjolund are the team’s top three scorers. They combined for 64 points, eight 3-pointers, 24 of 24 at the foul line, 17 rebounds and 11 assists in a 92-87 win over San Francisco that snapped a five-game losing skid.
“It was a big game for us, probably one of the biggest games of my career,” said second-year coach Shantay Legans, who guided Eastern Washington to the 2021 NCAA Tournament in his fourth season before taking the Portland job. “We had to win. If we didn’t, we’re 0-4 (in conference) and going to play the best team in the league. The guys battled. It was a big-time game for us.”
Legans has Portland on the rise after inheriting a program that finished in the WCC cellar three straight seasons with a 1-42 record. The Pilots were 19-15 last season and advanced to The Basketball Classic.
Gonzaga would be wise to prepare for the PK85 version of the Pilots and not the injury-riddled squad of recent weeks. Legans said there’s a chance Meadows could return for Saturday’s game.
“They’re a scrappy bunch, kind of junk up the game and do a lot of things,” Few said. “I would guess they’ll just sit there and let us shoot as many 3s as we want, like they did last year, and do all kinds of stuff.”
Gonzaga torched Portland with a McCarthey Athletic Center record 18 3-pointers in a 104-72 rout last season.
“We’ve got to play our game, be physical and tough,” Legans said. “Last year, our game plan was to go under ball screens and pack in on (Drew) Timme. We have to come up with a different plan because that didn’t work.
“We have to protect the inside. For 15, 20 years, they’ve been the best 2-point percentage team in the country. We have to slow that down and not give up all those 3s. This is a balanced team. They’re elite at everything.”
Legans has watched from afar as GU capped three straight second-half comebacks with suspenseful wins.
“They know how to win,” he said. “These games might mean more to them in March than anything else. It’s helping them for the long haul. What they’re doing in the long run is building character with their team and finding ways to win.”
One key for the Zags will be maintaining focus as they try to add to their 74-game home winning streak.
“I feel like getting on plane (Thursday night) and heading home, that’ll help just to sleep in my own bed, wake up and feel like a normal day and go to practice (Friday),” said wing Julian Strawther, who drained a winning 3-pointer against BYU with 9.8 seconds left. “We’ve been in a couple of these games now in a row, so I feel like we’re adapting to it.”
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