Loyola Marymount has no fear of facing No. 5 Gonzaga

Loyola Marymount plays six of its eight West Coast Conference games on the road starting Thursday night against No. 5 Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., but the Lions have an air of confidence about them.

“We have everything to gain and nothing to lose,” Loyola Marymount coach Mike Dunlap said. “Every conference game is an important point, and we want to look at each game as a new chapter. We’re looking forward to playing Gonzaga.”

They know they are so close to having a better record than their 8-7 mark overall and 1-3 in conference play going against the Bulldogs, who are 15-0 and 3-0.

Eight of Loyola Marymount’s last 12 games have been decided in the last 10 seconds of regulation. It compiled a record of 3-5 in those games. The Lions are 4-5 in games decided by less than seven points and they are 2-2 in one-point games.

Dunlap said he believes the close-game experience will translate into success later in the season because the Lions have practiced more on those pressure-filled late-game situations.

“We’ve had a lot of practice on single possessions, either offensively or defensively,” Dunlap said. “We call it the Big Stop.”

Gonzaga, meanwhile, has not needed to refine its last-minute execution, ranking first in the WCC and fourth nationally with an average winning margin of 20.5 points. Their closest margin in their three conference games is a 95-80 outcome at San Francisco on Jan. 5.

Their game at Portland on Jan. 7 was postponed because of inclement weather. Gonzaga’s players and coach Mark Few don’t believe the break from playing a week ago will cause them to get off track in what has been a dominating first 15 games.

“We know that we’re kind of on a special ride a little bit,” said guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who ranks in the top 11 in the WCC in five different categories — points, rebounds, assists and steals per game and free-throw percentage.

“I’m reminding our guys before every game, ‘Hey, this is a special season, let’s not take any game or any opponent for granted. Just try to play as hard as we can every night and give ourselves the best chance to win.”

After losing three consecutive conference games by a total of 18 points, Loyola Marymount defeated visiting Santa Clara decisively 66-56 on Jan. 7, which is another reason why the Lions head to The Kennel in Spokane with some resolve.

The Lions’ bench outscored Santa Clara’s reserves 39-2. Center Stefan Jovanovic, a transfer from Hawaii, came off the bench to lead Loyola Marymount with 14 points. Forward Kelvin Amayo and guard Jeff McClendon also combined for three steals.

“It’s a testament to our depth,” Dunlap said. “Morale-wise, it’s a long season … we have a spirited locker room. We could have been down and played flat, but we didn’t do that.”

Jovanovic, a 6-foot-11, 235-pound player, will be called on to help defend Gonzaga 7-1, 300-pound center Przemek Karnowski. Jovanovic is the second-leading scorer on his team at 11.3 points per game.

He came off the bench against Santa Clara after starting 10 times previously, including six consecutively before the win over the Broncos. Starting in his place was Petr Herman, who is 6-10 and 235 pounds and averages only 2.5 pounds and 2.4 rebounds per game.

Dunlap hopes the Jovanovic, Herman and 7-1, 240-pound post Mattias Markusson are enough to combat Gonzaga’s size inside that includes Karnowski and 7-0 stretch-power forward Zach Collins.

Collins, a freshman, averages 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in roughly 17 minutes per game in a frontcourt that includes 6-9 power forward Johnathan Williams and 6-10 post player Killian Tillie.

Gonzaga’s practice sessions, particularly going against Karnowski, have helped Collins develop defensively (team-high 17 blocked shots) and shooting around the hoop (conference-leading 71.2 percent from the field).

“He really does take me under his wing,” Collins told the Spokane Spokesman-Review about Karnowski, a senior. “I’ve learned so much coming from summer to now just because of him.

“He’s always in my ear, not going easy on me in practice. He’s a big dude and I’ve been really sore a lot because of battling him in practice, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”