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Gonzaga Basketball

Key matchup: “Juice” Hill provides spark to LMU’s injury-depleted offense

LOS ANGELES – Dominick Harris, the former Gonzaga guard and current leading scorer for Loyola Marymount, occupied the key matchup space two weeks ago, but his status is uncertain for Thursday’s GU-LMU game due to a knee injury.

Keli Leaupepe, an accomplished fifth-year forward, would probably be next in line, but he’s sidelined with a torn plantar fascia.

That leaves three candidates with similar stats: point guard Justice “Juice” Hill (10.6 points, 4.1 assists), guard Justin Wright (11.0 points, 47.6% from the field) and forward Alex Merkviladze (11.3 points, 6.6 rebounds).

We’ll go with Hill, who has elevated his scoring average to 11.8 points in West Coast Conference play and put up a team-high 14 points in the Lions’ 92-58 loss to Gonzaga in Spokane on Jan. 30. Last week, he led LMU with 19 points against San Diego and added 13 points versus Pepperdine with six scholarship players available on an injury-depleted roster.

Hill has stepped up, averaging 15.3 points as LMU’s injury list grew over the past three games. He’s one of the fastest players in the WCC with the ball in his hands, but he’ll have to be selective with transition opportunities due to the Lions’ limited number of reserves.

Hill, a transfer from LSU who previously played two seasons at Murray State, had a pair of 20-point outings in November before his production tailed off. He missed a month due to injury but has been solid since returning to the rotation.

The 6-foot, 175-pounder from Little Rock, Arkansas, was MVP of the 2022 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in Murray State’s first-round NCAA Tournament win over San Francisco.

Hill isn’t a knockdown shooter (41.6% from the field, 33.9% on 3-pointers), but he appears to be regaining his form from the season’s first four games 24 of 40 FG, 60%, 12 of 19 on 3s, 63.2%).

Gonzaga’s Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman are the likely defensive options on Hill. Whether it’s Nembhard or Hickman, both guards and the other three Zags on the court will likely try to push the pace and keep LMU counterparts busy on the defensive end with the Lions short on bench players.