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Gonzaga Basketball

‘It’s going to be a war’: Gonzaga already feeling urgency ahead of first matchup with Saint Mary’s

College basketball fans should get their fill on Saturday with top-10 matchups in the ACC (No. 3 Duke vs. No. 7 North Carolina), Big 12 (No. 4 Houston vs. No. 8 Kansas) and SEC (No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Kentucky).

If they care to stay up for it, the West Coast Conference should deliver an entertaining nightcap at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Part one of Gonzaga’s always-anticipated series with Saint Mary’s will take place Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. It might be hard to remember the last time a game between the Bulldogs (16-5, 7-1) and Gaels (17-6, 8-0) didn’t come with high stakes. Saturday’s rivalry clash in Spokane won’t be any different, even if there isn’t a ranking attached to either school this time around.

The first week of February is shaping up to be a massive one when it comes to the WCC regular-season race, not to mention seeding ramifications for the conference tournament.

The Gaels, who enter Saturday having won their past nine games, have a little more leeway than the Bulldogs, who were tripped up Jan. 11 at Santa Clara and would fall two games behind their rivals from Moraga, California, in the WCC standings with a loss.

There may not be many opportunities to make up ground if Gonzaga stumbles on Saturday.

Outside of its two games against GU, Saint Mary’s has only one more matchup against a top-five team in the WCC, on Feb. 20 at home against San Francisco.

With a clear demarcation line in the WCC this season – the conference’s top five teams (Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, USF, Santa Clara, LMU) have a combined 20-0 record against the bottom four (San Diego, Pepperdine, Portland, Pacific) – the Zags may not be able to count on help from anyone else in the conference, which adds even more urgency to the games against Saint Mary’s.

After a 3-5 start to the season the Gaels have turned the corner, winning 14 of their past 15 games, stumbling on Dec. 23 against Missouri State in Moraga.

“They’re playing great. (Bennett) has done a great job,” Gonzaga’s Mark Few said. “They hit a lull in the early part of December there, but I think all of us who know Saint Mary’s and know those guys and know him knew they’d be right back where they are right now. I don’t know what they’ve won, like 10 in a row or something.”

WCC coaches picked Saint Mary’s to win the conference, presumably because of what the Gaels were returning in 2023-24, in comparison to a Gonzaga team that had to replace five of eight rotational players from last season.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Gonzaga enters Saturday’s game with the WCC’s top offense, averaging 85.3 points per contest, and might be even less surprising that Saint Mary’s comes in with the conference’s top defense, which also ranks third nationally limiting its opponents to 58.4 points per game.

The Gaels’ defense softened late in Wednesday’s 82-77 win over Santa Clara, but Saint Mary’s held the Broncos without a point for 7 minutes, 27 seconds to open the game. Single-half point totals allowed by Saint Mary’s also include two 14-point halves in a blowout win of Pacific, 18 points in the first half against Santa Clara three weeks ago and 16 points in the first half of a nonconference rout of Middle Tennessee.

“Similar to what we faced tonight (against LMU), just an incredibly physical team that’s great on the boards, that doesn’t make mistakes and they try to make you beat them,” Few said after GU’s 92-58 win on Tuesday.

“Our teams over the years have done a great job with that, but this will be a huge challenge because they’re playing great right now.”

Some of the top keys for Gonzaga include containing sophomore guard Aidan Mahaney, who averages 14.1 points per game, and keeping senior center Mitchell Saxen off the offensive glass. Saxen, a Seattle native, is one of four Division I players with 90 offensive rebounds this season and ranks No. 2 in that category with 94 – one more than Purdue’s Zach Edey, the reigning national player of the year.

“It’s a battle every time. It’s not going to be a finesse game, it’s going to be a war in every aspect of the game,” GU junior forward Ben Gregg said. “Rebounding, defense, just everything. … It’s going to be a war, I think the most physical team is going to win and executing their game plan and taking advantage and taking good shots and stuff like that.”

After a 78-70 overtime loss to Saint Mary’s in Moraga last season in which Mahaney scored 18 points and Saxen had 11 rebounds, the Zags won the next two games against the Gaels, limiting Mahaney to 16 total points on 5-of-18 shooting while holding Saxen to four combined rebounds.

At WCC Media Day in October, Mahaney said he’d gone back to rewatch the Gaels’ 77-51 loss to the Zags in the conference championship game.

“Think it’s good to kind of rewatch some of that stuff, gets a little fuel going,” the guard said. “Everyone kind of does it differently. Some people flush it, some people like to relook at it.

“They got us on that night, I think it’s kind of as simple as that. … It was more so just for that mental push, I feel like for me. Whatever, preseason No. 1 pick in the league and we got popped by 30 in the championship. Don’t forget about that stuff and keep that fire burning.”