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The Best Rivalry Out West: Gonzaga and St. Mary’s

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The West Coast Conference foes make a case for one of the top rivalries in college basketball.

St Mary's v Gonzaga Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

It’s a rivalry that catches the eye of the casual east-coast viewer, but one that has been on the minds of the fans that fill McKeon Pavilion and the McCarthey Athletic Center for months.

The St. Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs’ rivalry deserves a mention among college hoops’ most bitter showdowns. Duke-UNC and Louisville-Kentucky may be a consensus 1-2 punch, but these two teams out west are more than making a case for the number three spot.

In mid-major conferences, and really college basketball as a whole, unpredictability is a certain. For those in the West Coast Conference, however, this is as close as one gets to an exception to this rule — all roads to the WCC crown pass through Moraga, California and Spokane, Washington.

There’s no denying that in the Mark Few era at Gonzaga, beginning with the 99-00 season, the conference has been theirs to lose. Randy Bennett’s Gael squad, which he took over in 2001, has not been far behind.

These two sides are no strangers to grappling for the top spot in the conference, usually finishing 1 and 2 in the league.

Naturally, the 2015-16 regular season ended with both teams tied for first.

They’ve also combined to win each of the last eight WCC Tournaments, with the Bulldogs having won the past four.

If every year a new Cinderella enters the NCAA Tournament with hopes that the slipper fits, then these two are the store regulars practically on a first-name basis with us all — close to outgrowing the mid-major name. So when it comes down to who gets the opportunity to try that shoe on, the mutual disdain for the other side fills the nearly 900 miles between campuses.

Former ‘Zags center Robert Sacre put it frankly back in 2012:

Bulldogs teammate Gary Bell Jr. took it a step further when asked about their visit to Moraga for a 2012 showdown with the Gaels:

Adam Morrison, Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills, and Domantas Sabonis, just to name a few, have left their mark on this fierce, yet unique rivalry.

St. Mary’s and Gonzaga, which host undergraduate student enrollments of just under 3,000 and 8,000 students respectively, take pride in filling their arenas, despite their small school sizes.

The creativity more than makes up for what they lack in quantity when it comes to these two sides. It is evident with “Dellavedova likes Nickelback” signs popping up in the stands in Spokane and the now-viral image of Adam Morrison crying a presence in the St. Mary’s student section when the Bulldogs come to town.

Gonzaga Bulldogs v UCLA Bruins Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

For two schools without football programs, these showdowns are extra special because that anticipation has been given time to build, with no pigskin to serve as the primer. And when that moment arrives, these battles are not taking place in just any cavern of an arena.

Scoring a ticket inside the intimate confines of the 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion in Moraga or the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center means one is getting as close as possible to physically feeling that excitement of both teams’ faithful. The games are reminiscent of a battle between two crosstown high school teams in a sweaty, small gym that becomes a nightmare for the visiting team to walk into.

And as is the reality of competing in a mid-major conference, even among established powers such as the two sides, there is no guarantee the loser of the matchup will be promised a ticket into the Big Dance, adding a level of desperation to each matchup.

And much to the joy of Gaels fans, Bulldogs fans, and college basketball fans alike, the two squads show no sign of easing up.