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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga rewind: Graham Ike outduels Mitchell Saxen, Ben Gregg’s impact against Saint Mary’s, Zags turn up tempo

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Graham Ike (13) moves the ball against Saint Mary's Gaels center Mitchell Saxen (11) during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, March 2, 2024, at University Credit Union Pavilion in Moraga, Calif.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

MORAGA, Calif. – After losing for the fourth time in eight games last month at Santa Clara, Gonzaga knew it had to do almost everything right to ensure the NCAA Tournament selection committee wouldn’t leave the Bulldogs out of the 68-team field for the first time since 1997-98.

Now, in the eyes of analysts and bracketologists, the Bulldogs can do no wrong as they rest for the WCC Tournament semifinals on March 11 in Las Vegas. Gonzaga’s road sweep in the Bay Area opened with a convincing 86-68 win over San Francisco at the Chase Center and culminated two days later with a relatively stress-free 70-57 victory at Saint Mary’s.

Gonzaga, which has won six straight games by double figures, led by as many as 29 points in the first game and 19 in the second, making 56% of its shots from the field against the Dons and Gaels.

“Gonzaga isn’t just a team that deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament – Gonzaga is a team that can advance in the NCAA Tournament,” CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein tweeted. “The Bulldogs are a LOCK after tonight’s win over Saint Mary’s.”

“I’m not sure Gonzaga ever really went away,” tweeted Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde. “But if you want to buy into that premise, Gonzaga is back.”

“Simply put, no matter what happens to them in the WCC Tournament, the committee will not be able to find 36 at-large resumes better than the one Gonzaga will submit on Selection Sunday,” wrote CBS Sports columnist Gary Parrish. “Anybody suggesting otherwise is creating drama where there is none.”

“This week has been massive for them,” The Field of 68’s Rob Dauster said. “Because now they’re dancing.”

More on Gonzaga’s postseason outlook over the next few weeks, but for now we get into the nuts and bolts of Saturday’s rivalry win in Moraga.

Big-man bout

Saint Mary’s students offered their thoughts on the WCC Player of the Year race during pregame Senior Night festivities, greeting the Gaels’ Mitchell Saxen with “MVP” chants when the fourth-year player was introduced at halfcourt.

Ike had something to say about that over the next 40 minutes, perhaps solidifying why the conference’s top individual award could be his to lose come next week.

Facing Saxen, arguably the WCC’s toughest post defender, Ike got going early with an and-one layup to give Gonzaga its first lead at the 17-minute mark. He had eight points inside the first 10 minutes and 14 at halftime, even after resting for more than five minutes midway through the opening frame.

“Ike (was) going against a very good post defender down there,” Few said. “Strong, tough, athletic, smart post defender. It’s a big-time offensive player going against a big-time defensive player. Basically that.”

There wasn’t a lot of separation between Ike and Saxen when the Zags and Gaels met in Spokane last month. Ike wasn’t as productive on the offensive end with only 12 points, but he also had 12 rebounds. Saxen finished that contest with 16 points, but just five boards.

But Gonzaga’s junior forward outclassed his Saint Mary’s counterpart in round two.

For the seventh time in as many games, Gonzaga got at least 20 points from Ike, who left the Bay Area having scored 50 against USF and Saint Mary’s. The junior forward totaled 24 points and 10 rebounds for his eighth double-double.

That was in contrast to an inconsistent night from Saxen, who scored 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field and committed a game-high five turnovers.

“That’s the type of guy you want to play against and that you have to play against if you want to do anything good in college basketball,” Saxen said of Ike. “We’ve got to come back and be better on him next time. He’s a tough cover, but he’s not unguardable by any means. I thought we did a lot better job up in Spokane.”

Gregg gets gritty

Ike and point guard Ryan Nembhard were the headliners for Gonzaga, combining for 44 points, but Ben Gregg made many of the hustle and effort plays that have given the Bulldogs a jolt in the starting unit since Few made a midseason change in January.

“He was just solid,” Few said. “You look at his line and I think he was 4 for 5. Just did what Ben Gregg does. Made some really nice plays and had his hands on some balls.”

Gregg was one of three double-digit scorers for Gonzaga, scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting to go with five rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot.

The Clackamas, Oregon, native was still settling into his new role when Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s met on Feb. 3 – Gregg’s sixth start, but his first against a high-end opponent.

Gregg was responsible for a few of Gonzaga’s most critical plays, knocking down a corner 3-pointer to extend the lead to a game-high 19 points late in the first half before helping key a 7-0 run that came after Saint Mary’s had used a 7-0 surge of its own to close the deficit to eight points.

“He’s a jack of all trades, he does it all down there and he makes winning plays every single possession, every game,” Ike said. “Love that guy, man.”

On the break

The slow, methodical pace Saint Mary’s uses on offense, combined with a disciplined approach on defense, can make it hard for the Zags to speed things up against the Gaels or operate at the pace they normally like to.

There was no better than example of that than the first meeting between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s this season.

“We had one point in Spokane in transition,” Few said. “One. So we challenged our guys. It’s not easy against them, they send everybody back but great job.”

Led by Nembhard, Gonzaga improved that number dramatically in Saturday’s rematch as the Bulldogs outscored the Gaels 15-3 in transition points.

Saint Mary’s aided Gonzaga by committing 13 turnovers, the most the Gaels have had in a home game since Dec. 29 against Kent State.

“You can’t do that against them,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “We knew that, we talked about it and then we did it. Our guards didn’t take care of it well enough and yeah. I didn’t think our guards played well – well enough – and I thought (Alex) Ducas played well. But we’ve got to have more than that. As a team, you’ve got to do more than that.

“You have to score, you’re not going to shut those guys out. Our keys are always don’t turn it over against them and keep them out of transition. We didn’t do either of those in the first half.”