The stakes are always high whenever Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s meet, but Thursday night’s showdown in Spokane carried even more importance than usual.
For Gonzaga, it was about pride. The Zags have won or shared the WCC title every year but one since 2001, yet Saint Mary’s received 9 of 10 first-place votes in the league’s preseason poll thanks to the return of four starters from last year’s 29-win NCAA tournament team.
For Saint Mary’s, it was about proving itself. The Gaels have a Top 25-caliber roster, but they seriously jeopardized their hopes of NCAA bid when they assembled a dreadful non-conference schedule and squandered their only chances for notable wins with a poor showing at the Wooden Legacy tournament.
Round one of one of college basketball’s best rivalries went to Saint Mary’s thanks to the brilliance of the Gaels’ All-American candidate. Senior center Jock Landale scored 17 of his 26 points in the second half as the Gaels erased a nine-point deficit and edged 13th-ranked Gonzaga 74-71 in front of a hostile road crowd.
One of the biggest reasons that Gonzaga swept all three matchups against Saint Mary’s in convincing fashion last season was that the Zags were able to hold Landale in check. The skilled 6-foot-11 Aussie got into foul trouble in all three games trying to guard the mammoth Przemek Karnowski on the low block and struggled to score with his usual efficiency inside against Karnowski and 7-foot freshman Zack Collins.
With Karnowski having graduated and Collins having left early for the NBA, Gonzaga did not have the same amount of size to throw at Landale. Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie are both ultra-athletic forwards who are excellent defending in space, but neither were any match for Landale in the paint or at the rim.
Landale logged 37 minutes — 11 more than the most he played in any of his three meetings against Gonzaga last year — and sank 12 of the 15 shots he attempted. He left his imprint on the game down the stretch by spinning around Williams for a layup to put Saint Mary’s ahead for good with 1:07 to go and making Williams pay for fronting him with another layup two possessions later to extend the Gaels’ lead to three with 15.5 seconds to play.
Between Landale’s presence around the rim and point guard Emmett Naar’s probing drives, Gonzaga’s defense often had to collapse around the paint. Saint Mary’s array of shooters made the Zags pay by sinking 8 of 13 threes, including two apiece from Calvin Hermanson, Tanner Krebs and Jordan Ford.
That display of efficient offense propelled Saint Mary’s into the driver’s seat in the WCC title race. Not only are the Gaels (18-2, 7-0) now a game ahead of Gonzaga (16-4, 6-1) and two games up on BYU (16-4, 4-2), they’ve also already won on the road against both of those schools.
Perhaps more important than the WCC title implications of Thursday’s victory is the fact that beating Gonzaga helps atone for Saint Mary’s disappointing non-conference showing.
Saint Mary’s squandered its only chance to prove itself in non-league play when it suffered a bad loss to Washington State in the Wooden Legacy semifinals on Nov. 24 and then compounded that mistake by by falling in overtime to a solid Georgia team two nights later. Those setbacks ensured that the Gaels’ best non-conference wins this season would be mid-major New Mexico State and a Dayton team in the midst of a rebuilding season.
A power-conference team can easily recover from a poor November and December with a few big wins in league play, but playing in the WCC doesn’t afford Saint Mary’s the luxury of too many chances for marquee victories. The Gaels had to take advantage of at least one of their two cracks at Gonzaga and avoid bad losses to the WCC’s middle and lower-tier teams.
For awhile on Thursday night, it didn’t look like Saint Mary’s would be able to secure a big road win. A 23-point night from breakout sophomore Rui Hachimura helped Gonzaga build leads of nine and seven points midway through the second half.
But the Zags could never pull away with point guard Josh Perkins misfiring on 8 of 9 shots and 3-point shots not falling. Perkins and Hachimura both missed 3-point looks in the final 15 seconds that could have tied the game.
Gonzaga will have to wait three weeks to get its shot at revenge. On Feb. 10 in Moraga, it will be round two of Zags-Gaels, another high-stakes clash with the WCC title likely hanging in the balance.
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