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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga brings momentum into rematch with shorthanded Loyola Marymount

LOS ANGELES – Just in time for the West Coast Conference stretch run, Gonzaga has a spring in its step after securing a significant win over Kentucky last Saturday.

The good news: That victory boosted the Bulldogs’ at-large credentials and demonstrated they can win a tight game against a quality opponent in a challenging road environment. The bad news: Their margin of error remains razor thin in the conference race and NCAA Tournament picture.

The goal: Hit their stride over the final six WCC regular-season games, beginning with Thursday’s road date against shorthanded Loyola Marymount at Gersten Pavilion.

“It’s obviously something we want to build off of,” coach Mark Few said following the Kentucky game. “To get this done against a really, really good team, really well-coached team, we just need to keep drawing from that. Probably the biggest thing is we finally closed one of these suckers out. We haven’t been doing that, so that’s what we’ll take out of it.”

Gonzaga (18-6, 8-2 WCC) crushed LMU 92-58 in Spokane two weeks ago with one of its most complete performances of the season. The setback was part of the Lions’ four-game losing streak that coincides with a shrinking roster due to injuries.

LMU (10-14, 3-7) had nine scholarship players available against the Zags, but that number dwindled to six when it fell to Pepperdine last Saturday. Four starters logged at least 38 minutes against the Waves.

“Never seen anything like it,” Lions coach Stan Johnson said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”

Former Gonzaga guard Dominick Harris, who transferred to LMU in May, sat out the Pepperdine game with a knee injury. Harris, the team’s leading scorer (14.0 points) and one of the top 3-point shooters in the conference, is doubtful for Thursday’s game.

Fifth-year senior forward Keli Leaupepe limped off the court late in the second half against Gonzaga and hasn’t played since.

“I was trying to take him out in the last 5 or 6 minutes of the game, had a sub at the (scorer’s) table but play kept going,” Johnson said. “He stepped weirdly and he’s been dealing with plantar fasciitis and he ripped some tissue.”

Leaupepe has averaged 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 129 career games at LMU, including 104 starts. Johnson said there’s a chance Leaupepe could return for the WCC Tournament next month.

The Lions have had to adjust their approach at both ends of the floor with a short bench that includes walk-on Kevin Carney. They recently added a walk-on and assistant coaches have suited up to provide enough bodies at practices.

“You have to lower possessions a little bit, that’s the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “The other thing you have to do is play without fouling. That limits how you (defend) on ball screens and our post defense coverage. We don’t really have a sub for a guard. Our sub is a walk-on.

“We’ve had to play two bigs and that’s a different look, something we’ve had to mess with the last 10-11 days. It really stretches your coaching in terms of getting creative.”

The Lions still have experience and firepower with four players essentially averaging double figures – five, if Harris plays. Senior forward Alex Merkviladze, a third-year Lion that began his career at Cal State Northridge, averages 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Justin Wright, a senior guard that transferred from North Carolina Central, chips in 11 points. Grad student Justice “Juice” Hill contributes 10.6 points and a team-leading 4.1 assists. He started on a 30-win Murray State team in 2022 and made 17 starts last season at LSU. Junior guard Will Johnston, a transfer from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, has hit 44 3-pointers, second only to Harris (61) and averages 9.9 points.

The Lions committed 20 turnovers in the first meeting, leading to Gonzaga’s 29-2 advantage in points off turnovers.

“We can’t be in foul trouble (Thursday),” said Johnson, who hopes to have eight or nine scholarship players available by the WCC Tournament. “We have to figure out how to keep them out of the paint. If you look at it, that’s where they do most of their damage. Their pick-and-roll, I thought they exposed us up there and they did it to Kentucky.”

LMU, picked fourth in the coaches’ preseason poll, is in sixth place and joins Pepperdine and Portland with three WCC wins. Gonzaga and San Francisco both have two conference losses and trail Saint Mary’s by two games. The top two teams receive a bye into the WCC Tournament semifinals.