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Gonzaga Basketball

Plenty on the line when No. 23 Gonzaga visits No. 17 Saint Mary’s in regular-season finale

MORAGA, Calif. – There won’t be a regular-season title on the line or conference tournament seeds up for grabs when one of the West Coast’s top rivalries tips off Saturday night in the Bay Area.

A Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game without stakes? Well, not quite.

Even without the usual ramifications, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with at least a few dozen reasons to tune in to the 115th meeting between the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs (23-6, 13-2) and 17th-ranked Gaels (24-6, 15-0) .

From Gonzaga’s side, Saturday’s game at UCU Pavilion in Moraga profiles as one of the most important in recent memory, as the Bulldogs continue their quest for a 25th straight NCAA Tournament bid.

Mark Few’s program took one big step toward securing at least an at-large to the big dance, but many analysts and bracketology experts think the Zags could all but clinch their spot in the 68-team field by a beating a Saint Mary’s team that sits top 20 in most metrics, rankings and polls.

“It’s going to take everything we’ve got to go in there and get it done,” Few said. “But we’ve got step one (defeating San Francisco) and now we’ve got to go get step two.”

Gonzaga’s motives are obvious entering the finale, but what’s in it for Saint Mary’s after the Gaels locked up the WCC regular-season title with Thursday’s drubbing of Pepperdine and have guaranteed the No. 1 seed at the conference tournament ?

Randy Bennett’s team is riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 16 consecutive games and the Gaels have an opportunity to close out their first unbeaten WCC season since joining the league in 1952. Saint Mary’s hasn’t swept Gonzaga in the regular season since 2016.

“They’ve had a heckuva year,” Few said. “I think we led the game in Spokane for 30 minutes or 32 minutes and just didn’t quite finish it off. They’re doing a great job of finishing off games.”

Both teams were unranked in the AP Top 25 when they met in Spokane on Feb. 2, but neither has lost since. The Zags have averaged 92 points per game over a seven-game win streak following their 64-62 loss to the Gaels.

Saint Mary’s averaged just 63.3 points while losing four of five games during nonconference play, but the Gaels’ offense has been humming since the Gonzaga game, averaging 84 points while still ranking 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

“We’ve got to come out with the win,” Gonzaga guard Nolan Hickman said. “If you want to get into specifics, down the stretch of the game we’ve just got to finish the game better. Get stops at the end of the game.

“That’s all the Saint Mary’s game was. Yeah, I think everything will work itself out if we do that.”

Even during a 16-game win streak, it hasn’t necessarily been smooth sailing for Saint Mary’s, which could be without two rotation players in the frontcourt on Saturday.

Starting forward Joshua Jefferson, who essentially canceled out Gonzaga’s Anton Watson while posting a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double last month at the Kennel, was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a left knee injury.

If backup center Harry Wessels misses his third consecutive game with a shoulder injury, the Gaels won’t have another scholarship frontcourt player available off the bench.

Senior forward Mason Forbes, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Harvard, has been starting in Jefferson’s place since the injury but the Folsom, California, native didn’t see the floor in the first game between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga.

“Forbes is a good athlete, he’s a great defensive player and he’s obviously different than Jefferson,” Few said. “Jefferson was great against us the first time, but Randy will do a great job of making adjustments and they’ll play a variety of people so we’ll see.”

Gonzaga Watson and Graham Ike, along with Saint Mary’s center Mitchell Saxen all encountered foul trouble in the last game, which ended with a few controversial officiating calls down the stretch, prompting students to throw plastic bottles, cups and other items onto the playing surface in frustration.

Ike’s scored at least 20 points in nine of Gonzaga’s past 11 games, but should face more resistance from Saxen, a returning All-WCC first-team selection who ranks second in the conference in blocked shots.

“It’s going to be a dogfight. Real dogfight,” Hickman said. “They always bring a fight every single time we play them. I’m ready, my guys is ready. I know that for sure, so yeah, we’ll be ready.”