Spokane, WA (SportsNetwork.com) - Two of the four teams in the nation to have won at least 25 games in the past six seasons just so happen to reside in the same conference, and they will mix it up on Thursday night as the Gaels of Saint Mary's challenge the 24th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center.
Saint Mary's had opened the season with nine straight wins, but a trip to Hawaii over Christmas to participate in the Diamond Head Classic proved disastrous as the team lost all three games (South Carolina, Hawaii, George Mason), albeit by a combined 11 points, two of which were only two-point setbacks. The Gaels couldn't get back to the mainland soon enough, and they got back on track with an 88-80 victory at Pacific on Monday in their WCC opener.
SMC head coach Randy Bennett is serving the second of a five-game suspension handed down by the NCAA, and assistant Eran Ganot will continue to serve as interim coach.
Gonzaga moved to 12-2 on the season and 2-0 in conference by beating visiting San Francisco on Monday, 69-41. The Bulldogs had taken down Santa Clara in their league lid lifter two days prior, 74-60, giving them a modest two-game win streak following a 72-62 loss to Kansas State on Dec. 21. Gonzaga has been dominant at the McCarthey Center over the years, going 65-2 there in conference games and 126-8 there overall. The Zags have won 20 consecutive WCC games regardless of the venue.
Gonzaga owns a commanding 57-27 lead in the all-time series with Saint Mary's, and the Bulldogs won all three meetings last season, including a 65-51 triumph in the WCC Tournament title tilt.
Balanced scoring and impressive shooting led Saint Mary's to its conference- opening win at Pacific earlier this week, as all five starters reached double figures, and the team made good on 51.9 percent of its field goal attempts, which included a 13-of-26 showing from 3-point range. Beau Levesque finished with a line of 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists, while Stephen Holt was one of three guys to net 15 points, and he handed out eight helpers as well. The trio of Levesque, Holt and Kerry Carter drained 10-of-18 long-range launches. Brad Waldow, who tallied 14 points and eight boards against the Tigers, continues to pace the team in the scoring column, averaging 16.8 ppg thanks to an eye-popping .642 field goal percentage, which ranks in the top-10 nationally. Holt (13.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.5 apg), James Walker III (12.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and Levesque (11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) round out the double-digit scorers for a team that is putting up 77.2 behind typical shooting outputs of .481 overall and .433 from beyond the arc. Defensively, the Gaels are yielding 66.3 ppg, with opponents converting 44.4 percent of their total shots, but only 29.6 percent of their 3-point opportunities.
Gonzaga also put forth a balanced effort in its recent win over San Francisco, as it too had five players score in double figures, led by Drew Barham with 15 points. He added nine rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot to his final stat line, but it really was the Bulldogs' effort at the defensive end that led them to victory as the Dons were held to 25.5 percent field goal efficiency, which included a 6-of-21 showing from 3-point land. Przemek Karnowski contributed 11 points and eight boards for GU, while Kevin Pangos, David Stockton and Gerard Coleman each chipped in 10 points. The margin of victory could have been even greater if not for the fact that the Zags converted only 11-of-20 free throws. Pangos (17.6 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.4 rpg) continues to be the team's top scorer as well as its primary playmaker, while injured starters Sam Dower (13.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Gary Bell, Jr. (12.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg) complete the list of GU's double-digit scorers. The Bulldogs are +4.3 in rebounding margin, and they are holding the opposition to 67.9 ppg -- that figure sitting at 50.5 ppg in their two league bouts. The team scores 83.4 ppg for the season, shooting 51.3 percent from the floor, with 42.6 percent of its 3-point tries finding the bottom of the net.