MORAGA, Calif. – Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams considered the question and deferred his answer until Saturday night at about 9-ish.
How will the Zags approach defending Saint Mary’s star center Jock Landale, who torched Gonzaga for 26 points in the Gaels’ victory last month in Spokane?
“I can’t give away the secrets,” Williams smiled. “I’ll let you guys find out on Saturday night.”
The answer should go a long way in deciding the outcome of the WCC game of the year Saturday night in front of a packed house at McKeon Pavilion and a national television audience.
Remember some of that chatter back in mid January about the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s rivalry not really being much of a rivalry? That quieted down about the time the buzzer sounded on Saint Mary’s 74-71 win in Spokane.
It’s certainly been one-sided in Gonzaga’s favor – 12 wins in the last 15 series meetings and 16 of the last 17 regular-season titles – but Saint Mary’s has three crowns, one solo and two shared with GU, in the last seven years. A win Saturday positions the Gaels for an outright championship.
“Obviously it’s going to be the biggest game of the conference,” Gonzaga sophomore forward Killian Tillie said. “At our place we were winning all game, we just messed up at the end. We know we can beat them. We’re just going to go out there and execute the game plan and be ready for them.”
No. 12 Gonzaga (22-4, 12-1) and No. 11 Saint Mary’s (24-2, 13-0) have gone at it for the better part of 15 years for WCC supremacy, but it’s never been quite like this. This marks the first time in conference history two teams have clashed while ranked in the top 15.
Saint Mary’s has ripped off 19 straight wins to reach the highest ranking in program history.
“It’s always a pretty ridiculous game, but I’m sure they’re going to come in with even a bit more intensity,” said Gaels guard Emmett Naar, who has moved past Matthew Dellavedova into the top spot on SMC’s all-time assists list. “I know they’re going to want to get us back. They don’t really lose too often up there. It’s probably something that’s in their minds, I’d imagine.”
“I’m not going to lie, it took three days for that sting to wear off a little bit,” Zags freshman wing Corey Kispert said. “But our whole goal was to focus one game at a time until this one (Saturday). This has been marked on our calendars.”
And marked in capital letters on the Zags’ scouting report is how it plans to deal with Landale, who has all but locked up WCC player of the year honors.
The skilled, 6-foot-11 center is averaging 24.2 points per WCC game. He’s a career 63-percent shooter, which would rank No. 1 in school history. Landale has 16 double-doubles, including 14 in the last 18 games. He’s been held below 13 points once when he scored six versus Portland, but he contributed 11 boards and three assists.
“We know there’s going to be a lot of hype around it,” Landale told AP after Thursday’s win. “For us, it’s another matchup, and we have to play them like we played them last time up there. It should work out well for us.”
The Zags played well in the January meeting, but they struggled in crunch time after building a nine-point lead. They’ll need improved play from guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. They combined for just 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting in the first meeting. The duo was 2 of 17 from the field in Thursday’s win over Pacific.
“It was a tough loss,” GU coach Mark Few said. “We led for long stretches and just didn’t quite finish it off. But they didn’t pout, they had to go into some tough places and figure some things out. Now we’re back in position to see if we can do something.”