No. 1 Gonzaga ready for showdown at No. 20 Saint Mary’s

By Jake Curtis, The Sports Xchange

What might be considered the biggest basketball game ever played on the Saint Mary’s campus will take place Saturday evening.

That is when No. 1 Gonzaga brings its 25-0 record to Saint Mary’s to face the No. 20 Gaels (22-2, 12-1 WCC) in a game that is likely to determine to West Coast Conference champion and could have a major influence on the national landscape.

It will be the first time a No. 1 team has played a game on the Saint Mary’s campus since top-ranked San Francisco defeated the Gaels on Feb. 16, 1955, about a month before Bill Russell led the Dons to their first national championship

Adding to the buildup will be the presence of ESPN’s Game Day crew, which will descend on Moraga, Calif., a bucolic town whose location is a mystery to many folks outside the San Francisco Bay Area.

“It’s really cool,” Saint Mary’s guard Joe Rahon said of the hype generated by Game Day’s presence. “It’s something that we’re not going to shy away from. We’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to enjoy it. But we know they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the other team.”

The other team, Gonzaga, has won its 13 conference games by an average margin of 25.8 points and none was closer than 10 points. Saturday’s game is the biggest remaining obstacle to Gonzaga completing an undefeated regular season.

The Bulldogs apparently were not looking ahead on Thursday when they pounded Loyola Marymount 90-60.

“I feel like we’ve done it all year,” junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss told the Spokesman-Review of Spokane. “For games like Saturday, you can’t just expect to turn it on. We preach having great practices, great games, regardless of who we’re playing.

“So when we do get in these big games like Saturday, we only know how to play one way. It’s been a recipe for success for us.”

Williams-Goss missed last Saturday’s game against Santa Clara because of an ankle injury, but he returned Thursday to collect 19 points and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes of court time.

He was the high scorer with 19 points back on Jan. 14 in Spokane, Wash., when the Bulldogs handed Saint Mary’s a 79-56 defeat. The score was a bit misleading because the Gaels trailed by just six with 8:40 remaining, but it was still a decisive blow by a Gonzaga team that lost both regular-season meetings with Saint Mary’s last season before beating the Gaels in the conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s returns every key member of the team that beat Gonzaga 70-67 the last time the teams met in Moraga. All nine Saint Mary’s players who saw time in that game are back this season, and that was before 6-foot-11 center Jock Landale, who leads the team in both scoring (15.7) and rebounding (9.5), was a prominent contributor.

Gonzaga is a completely different team, with four new starters following the departure of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Two transfers — Goss-Williams, a leading candidate for WCC player of the year who is averaging 15.8 points, 4.7 assists and 5.9 rebounds, and Jordan Mathews — join returning starter Josh Perkins to give the Bulldogs a sound perimeter game. And 7-1 Przmek Karnowski (who missed most of last season with a back injury), 6-9 Johnathan Williams and 7-foot freshman Zach Collins, the team’s sixth man, give them a strong inside presence.

That’s why the Bulldogs rank third in the country in field-goal percentage at 51.4 percent.

The Gaels were sixth in the country in that category at 50.1 percent before shooting a season-low 30.6 percent in their 51-41 victory over Portland on Thursday.

So what will it take for Saint Mary’s to pull off the upset?

“Defense and rebounding,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “They can generate offense so fast.”

The Bulldogs shot 64.7 percent in last month’s game against Saint Mary’s, which obviously can’t let that happen again.

The Gaels rank second nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 54.6 points per game, but Gonzaga ranks second in the country in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponent to shoot just 37.0 percent.

“I think we’ve been a sneaky-good defensive team this season,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I don’t think we get enough credit defensively.”

It all begins at 5:15 p.m. PT on Saturday, an unusual starting time to accommodate television.

“It’ll be nice that it’s an earlier start,” said Rahon, “because I’m sure that day we’ll be jumping out of our of skin ready to go.”