No. 14 Gonzaga ready to host San Diego

Gonzaga was already looking up at Saint Mary’s in the WCC standings. Now the Zags sit one spot behind the Gaels in the Top 25.

That isn’t good news for San Diego, which faces both conference heavyweights this week, starting with the No. 14 Bulldogs on Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.

The Toreros (15-7, 6-4 WCC), who come in off consecutive wins after losing four of five games earlier this month, have surpassed the previous season’s win total (13) for the second time in coach Lamont Smith’s three-year tenure (San Diego won nine games in Smith’s first season).

“It’s No. 14,” Smith told The San Diego Union-Tribune after his team beat Santa Clara a week ago. “I think we still haven’t reached our ceiling yet.”

Junior forward Juwan Gray, who made his first start of the season, said the win brought a confidence boost.

“It was very important,” said Gray, who scored 14 points. “We had to come in and take care of business.”

Much of the Toreros’ resurgence can be attributed to a pair of Isaiahs: Pineiro and Wright.

The two transfers, San Diego’s leading scorers, led the way in Saturday’s 89-82 win over Loyola Marymount.

Pineiro had 29 points — making 10 of 14 shots — and nine assists, and Wright added 15 as the Toreros made 12 3-pointers and shot 57.7 percent from the floor.

“When we play free and fast, this is what happens,” Pineiro said. “My teammates were giving me good looks, and they were knocking down shots when I got them the ball.”

While the final score was deceiving — San Diego led by 23 at halftime and 15 with 1:20 to go — it was the most points the Toreros had allowed in a non-overtime game this season.

“We had a sense of urgency on both ends,” Smith said. “I don’t want to say we played perfect the first half, but for 18, 19 minutes, we played high-level basketball.”

While the offense clicked against the Lions, it is defense where the Toreros have excelled this season.

Gonzaga (19-4, 9-1) makes 9.4 shots from long range per game but will be facing the nation’s No. 1 3-point defense on Thursday.

Overall, the Zags are fifth in the nation in field goal percentage (51.2), while San Diego is holding opponents to 39.3 percent, 14th best.

Gonzaga won its first five WCC games by an average of more than 35 points.

But since then the Zags have a home loss to Saint Mary’s and haven’t won by more than 16.

Bulldogs coach Mark Few isn’t pleased with his team’s consistency.

“That’s the toughest thing right now,” Few told the (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review after his team turned back San Francisco 82-73 on Saturday. “We’re getting a great play here, then a foolish play or an inattentive play. It’s quite a battle with the whole group.”

Gonzaga led San Francisco by 11 with 61/2 minutes left but watched the Dons make it a three-point game four minutes later.

“We just have to slow down. We took a couple bad shots,” Zags wing Zach Norvell Jr. said. “On the defensive end, we weren’t finishing out the possession.”

Still, as with most of their West Coast Conference opponents, the Bulldogs have dominated San Diego, especially at home, where they’ve won 18 straight.

But Pineiro said he thinks his team will be ready for Thursday’s trip to Spokane and Saturday’s home game with No. 13 Saint Mary’s.

“We’re going into them expecting to play well,” he said.