Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga looking to improve physicality, rebounding in long-awaited rematch against Santa Clara

In at least five of their six losses, the Gonzaga Bulldogs probably feel they could’ve done a few things differently down the stretch to flip the outcome.

A 77-76 loss at Santa Clara on Jan. 12 especially didn’t sit well with Gonzaga – something that was made increasingly more apparent on Thursday night while various players were visiting with the media following an 86-65 win over Portland.

In separate interviews, guard Nolan Hickman and forward Ben Gregg took the liberty of bringing up Gonzaga’s next opponent, even when the words “Santa” or “Clara” weren’t mentioned in the original question.

“Obviously, I think we feel like we left one on the table there that we didn’t quite finish off,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

More than a month later, the Bulldogs are still irritated with how their game in Santa Clara played out and Saturday’s rematch in Spokane marks the start of a small revenge tour against the teams responsible for both of Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference losses.

“The get back is always fun,” Hickman said.

After facing fourth-place Santa Clara (18-10, 9-5) on Saturday in the home finale, Gonzaga (21-6, 11-2) will move on to a pair of crucial games next week, against third-place San Francisco (21-7, 10-3) at the Dons’ Chase Center and first-place Saint Mary’s (22-6, 13-0) in Moraga, California.

Gonzaga’s at-large NCAA Tournament hopes could hinge on the Bulldogs going 3-0 during that stretch, making Saturday’s Quad 2 game against Santa Clara just as important as two highly anticipated Quad 1 opportunities next week in the Bay Area.

“We can’t overlook any opponent now,” Gregg said. “We’ve got to take care of Santa Clara on Saturday. We know what they did to us last time. We can’t look past them and next week will be the same mindset.”

Gonzaga has controlled the rebounding column in all but four games this season. The Bulldogs have finished plus-20 or better five times, but the biggest disparity in a game in which they conceded the rebounding battle came in mid-January at the Leavey Center. Santa Clara finished plus-13 and accumulated a 14-7 advantage on the offensive glass to hand the Zags their first WCC loss.

“I just don’t think we were prepared for what they were going to do to us physically, how physical they were. We weren’t prepared for that,” Gregg said. “(Coaches) told us, but watching film and getting out there is two totally different things, so now we’ve got a good feel for how physical they are and how hard they play. We’ve just got to match that and I think we’ll be OK.”

The lasting image from that game was Adama Bal’s coast-to-coast effort with 4 seconds remaining, resulting in the winning layup and an ensuing court storm.

The talented junior wing, who transferred to Santa Clara from Arizona, recently missed three consecutive games with an undisclosed injury and struggled in his return to the court, finishing scoreless on 0-of-8 shooting from the field against Loyola Marymount on Thursday.

After facing three consecutive teams in LMU, Pacific and Portland that lean on smaller, perimeter-oriented lineups, the Zags should have their hands full with the size and physical nature of Santa Clara, which starts 7-foot Christoph Tilly and 6-10 Johnny O’Neil.

Senior guard Carlos Marshall Jr., a 13 points-per-game scorer who’s been one of the WCC’s top outside shooters, didn’t play against LMU due to illness and his availability for Saturday’s game is unknown.

“Santa Clara’s got a nice team, man,” Few said. “I think they were more physical than us, they were tougher than us, they pounded us on the glass. So I think that’s probably what the guys were referring to. They really went after us. We need to try to address that and come out there with all the emotion on Senior Day.

“These guys have done a great job, just take care of business with the next one up. So, Santa Clara’s the next one up and we’ll need to play really, really well to get it done on both ends of the floor and definitely on the glass.”

Bal and the Broncos overcame a 32-point effort from Anton Watson last time around and the Gonzaga senior won’t be lacking sources of motivation when the teams meet again Saturday.

The 144th game of Watson’s college career will be the Gonzaga Prep product’s last one at the Kennel. Watson will be the only GU player honored in pregame Senior Day festivities and he’ll have a chance to surpass mentor John Stockton on the school’s all-time scoring list with at least three points against Santa Clara.

“I’m definitely going to miss it,” Watson said. “Gonzaga holds a special place in my heart. Next year I probably won’t even be in Spokane. I‘ve been here the past 10 years, so it’s going to be different for me, but I’m excited for that.”