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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga can’t look past Pilots with key games looming on schedule

PORTLAND – Gonzaga is going to need some unexpected help to chase down Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference standings.

The Gaels took a big step toward the title with a 70-66 win Tuesday over San Francisco to maintain a two-game edge in the loss column over Gonzaga with just three games remaining.

The Zags still have plenty of motivation for their final four regular-season games as they attempt to strengthen their NCAA Tournament at-large resume and earn a top-two seed and corresponding bye into the WCC Tournament semifinals.

Gonzaga’s closing stretch begins Thursday against Portland, which won’t generate nearly as much hoopla as Saturday’s home contest against Santa Clara or next week’s road swing against San Francisco and Saint Mary’s, but the outcome matters a great deal. A win over the Pilots, No. 314 in the NET rankings, wouldn’t impress the selection committee, but a Quad 4 loss would move the needle a long way in the wrong direction for the Zags.

So before the Zags face foes they are 1-2 against and sit in fourth, third and first in the WCC, they have to stay focused on the Pilots, who have dropped four straight, including a 96-64 loss in Spokane two weeks ago.

The Zags (20-6, 10-2 WCC) made a season-high 15 3-pointers in the first meeting, following a pattern that has emerged in four meetings against the Shantay Legans-coached Pilots. Gonzaga hit 18 and 17 3s in home wins the past two years – No. 1 and No. 2 for made 3s at the McCarthey Athletic Center – and Julian Strawther connected on eight 3s and scored 40 points at the Chiles Center last season.

Portland has essentially dared the Zags to shoot 3s, preferring to pack the paint against talented post players. On GU’s second possession two weeks ago, Anton Watson’s defender was below the free-throw line when the senior forward hit a 3 from the top of the key. On the next play, Nolan Hickman was left alone for a wing 3.

Portland’s strategy, at least in the first meeting, is likely based on the Zags’ shooting 20% from distance in six losses. That figure plummets to 14.7% in Gonzaga’s conference setbacks against Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s. The trade-off is GU has hit nearly 42% of 3s in 10 WCC victories.

Portland (9-19, 3-10) ranks 347th out of 351 D-I teams in 3-point defense at 38.2%.

Gonzaga comes in on a hot offensive streak, averaging 94.5 points during a four-game winning streak with shooting percentages of 56 or higher in three of those contests.

The Zags’ issues have been more at the defensive end, where they’re encountering teams that space the floor, run isolation plays and try to beat GU off the bounce. That presents a defensive challenge for Gonzaga, which inserted 6-foot-10 Ben Gregg into the starting lineup about a month ago and often plays with three bigs on the floor – with considerable success at the offensive end.

Gonzaga ran into that style of offense against Pacific, San Francisco and Kentucky to some degree and will see it against Portland, according to head coach Mark Few.

Senior Tyler Robertson, who followed Legans from Eastern Washington to Portland three years ago, leads the Pilots at 16.1 points per game. Guard Vukasin Masic is next at 13.0 and 6-8 freshman wing Tyler Harris chips in 12.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. All three shoot at least 35% behind the 3-point line.

Harris was sidelined for four games with an ankle injury before returning to score a team-high 19 points and grab 10 boards against San Diego last Thursday. He sat out Saturday’s loss to Pepperdine with an illness.

Guard Juanse Gorosito averages 10.5 points in conference and 6-11 forward Bol Dengdit, who moved into the starting lineup one month ago, has scored in double digits in six straight games.