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Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga set for first tilt of the season

The Gaels look to remain unbeaten in WCC as the Zags look to pull even in the standings.

NCAA Basketball: San Francisco at St. Mary’s
Freshman Aidan Mahaney leads Saint Mary’s with 14.8 points per game. 
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

When Gonzaga takes the floor Saturday night at Saint Mary’s, it will find itself in unfamiliar territory entering a West Coast Conference game — looking up at its opponent in the standings.

This is a showdown of a prolific offense against a stingy defense. Gonzaga boasts the highest scoring offense in the country at 86.4 points per game, while Saint Mary’s touts the nation’s fourth best defense by yielding 57.1 points per game. It is the fewest points per game the Gaels are allowing since the 1950-51 season.

The Gaels are undefeated in the WCC at 9-0, have won 11 straight games and are 20-4 on the season. They rank No. 7 in KenPom, land at No. 18 in the AP Top 25 poll, and are ranked No. 2 in the Mid-Major Madness Other Top 25 poll. They also boast the slowest pace of play in the country.

“They’re incredibly solid at what they do,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It’s nothing crazy. It’s just they’re incredibly disciplined… It’s an old team and a good team. And they don’t make mistakes on the offensive end. I think they might be playing the slowest pace of play in all of college basketball by KenPom, but it’s so effective. And [Bennett]’s done an amazing, incredible job down there.”

Freshman guard Aidan Mahaney paces the Saint Mary’s offense with 14.8 points per game. A trio of Gaels are scoring just over 12 points per contest: Mitchell Saxen (12.5), Alex Ducas (12.4) and Logan Johnson (12.2).

They are coming off a 68-59 comeback victory over San Francisco Thursday night. Trailing by two with four minutes to go, the Gaels scored eight straight to seize control. Mahaney capped off the run with a 3-pointer with 1:45 left. All of Saint Mary’s scoring came from five players, each of whom cracked double figures. Ducas led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds. The win was No. 500 for head coach Randy Bennett.

It was the Gaels’ second straight dramatic come-from-behind win. Mahaney drained a fadeaway jumper with 0.3 seconds remaining to lift SMC to a 57-56 win at BYU last Saturday.

The Zags are in second place at 8-1 and 19-4 overall. They sit at No. 16 in KenPom, are ranked No. 12 by the AP voters and No. T-3 in our Other Top 25 poll.

Senior forward Drew Timme powers Gonzaga’s offense with a career-best 21.4 points per game, which ranks ninth in the nation. He is also averaging career-highs in rebounding (7.7), assists (3.5) and blocks (1.0).

Three other Zags average in double figures. Julian Strawther is also posting career-highs with 15.8 points and 6.4 boards per game. Anton Watson is scoring 10.9 points per contest, and Rasir Bolton is contributing 10.8 points a night.

“You’re going to have to score to beat them,” Bennett said, according to East Bay Times. “And you have to do a good job of guarding them and guarding Timme. Keep ’em out of transition. You have to have a really good defensive effort to beat them.”

Gonzaga most recently topped Santa Clara 88-70 at home Thursday night. The Zags shot 59% for the game and led by 19 at halftime. During the game, Timme became the third player in program history to eclipse the 2,000 career point mark. He tallied 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The teams split their two meetings in the regular season last year with each defending home court. The last time the Zags traveled to Moraga, Calif., they fell to the Gaels 67-57. They enacted revenge 10 days later with an 82-69 victory over Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game.

This weekend’s showdown is the marquee game of the WCC’s Bill Russell Recognition Week. The two teams are scheduled to meet in the regular-season finale at Gonzaga on Feb. 25.