The West Coast Conference belongs to the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Don’t tell that to the Saint Mary’s Gaels, though, who ended the Zags’ run of dominance last season by winning both the regular season and tournament titles outright. As the two WCC rivals square off again tonight in Moraga, California, the Bulldogs have a score to settle and a conference to reclaim.
It won’t be easy, though, and they’re preparing to have their hands full with the Gaels playing their best basketball of the season. SMU hasn’t lost since they fell to Gonzaga in Spokane 83-78 on January 10 and have been a perfect 13-0 this season at home. During their nine-game winning streak, Saint Mary’s is allowing just 59.0 points per game while winning by an average margin of 16.0 points.
They’re only half a game back of Gonzaga in the race for the WCC regular season title and hope to capture the same intensity they used last season to take two of three, including an 83-62 win at home over the Bulldogs. These programs have fought back and forth for conference supremacy the last several years, splitting their last eight contests, with four being decided by five points or fewer.
The Bulldogs understand they’ll have to come out swinging and know exactly what’s at stake in this game, according to forward Sam Dower:
“We have to go out and prove our worth. We didn’t win the conference last season year and we want to get back up there again. So we have something to prove.”
And to prove it they’ll need strong play on both ends of the floor. Leading scorer Kelly Olynyk (17.7 points per game) dominated the paint the last time these two teams met up, scoring 31 points and grabbing eight rebounds as the Zags outscored the Gaels 46-34 in the paint. He’ll team up with fellow post presence Elias Harris, who has averaged 22.0 points and 10.0 rebounds in three career games at Saint Mary’s.
Kevin Pangos will look to repeat his strong performance from the last contest, where he scored 22 points. The Bulldogs will likely play off their inside dominance to get open looks on the perimeter for Pangos, who is 8-for-16 from 3-point range in the last two games, and Drew Barham, 9-of-14 from range over the last five games.
Defensively, the Gonzaga gameplan centers around slowing down Matthew Dellavadova. The senior from Australia is leading the Gaels in scoring (15.9 points per game), assists (6.6 per game) and steals (1.2 per game), and facilitates everything Saint Mary’s wants to do on the offensive end. He killed the Zags last season at home, scoring 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the floor, including 5-of-10 from 3-point range. Saint Mary’s will be feeding him and trying to get him on track early, as the Gaels are a perfect 12-0 this season when their senior guard scores at least 17 points.
It will be a raucous environment in McKeon Pavillion tonight as the premier programs of the WCC face off to determine who will carry the banner for the conference in the national spotlight. Will it be the No. 5 ranked Bulldogs as they begin their march on a Final Four run? Or the reigning conference champions, hell-bent on playing the spoiler?
Either way, it will be must-see television that will definitely be worth staying up late for.