|First showdown of ranked WCC teams pits Gonzaga against Saint Mary's|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 29 February 2008 12:00|
No. 24 Gonzaga will host 25th-ranked Saint Mary's, who handed the Bulldogs their only conference loss more than three weeks ago, with first place in the conference on the line.
``It's the pride of the WCC right there,'' said Gonzaga's David Pendergraft.
While the conference is generally thought of as Gonzaga and the seven dwarves, this year is a bit of an exception.
The Zags (22-6, 11-1) were 14th in the preseason poll but fell out after a rough December. They moved back into the rankings on Monday after a nine-week absence, having won 12 of their last 15 games.
The only losses? No. 1 Tennessee, No. 2 Memphis and, you guessed it, Saint Mary's.
The Gaels (24-4, 11-1) have been the only WCC team to consistently challenge Gonzaga in recent years. But they haven't won a conference regular season title since 1997, when they shared it with Bay Area rival Santa Clara.
The game is at 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, which is always sold out and should be even more animated than usual.
``We're the best two teams in the league,'' Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. ``We've proven that.''
The West Coast Conference, which dates to 1953, consists of eight small private colleges in California, Oregon and Washington. Despite two national titles for San Francisco, it has kept a low profile and generally sends only one team to the NCAA tournament.
For the past nine years, that team has been Gonzaga.
Saint Mary's last made the NCAAs as an at-large team in 2005.
This season marks the first time two WCC teams have been in the poll at the same time since San Francisco and former member UNLV shared the poll for two weeks in December 1973.
The winner on Saturday will be in first place heading into their final regular season games on Monday. The champion gets the top seed in the league tournament in San Diego, but both teams are already guaranteed a bye all the way to the tournament semifinals.
``It's on our minds a lot,'' the Gaels' Diamon Simpson of the title. ``That was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, so we're going to try to get it.''
Saint Mary's won the first meeting with Gonzaga, 89-85 in overtime, on Feb. 4 in Moraga, Calif. But the return match is on a floor where the Zags have gone 50-2 since 2004.
``They got us down there,'' said Gonzaga forward Josh Heytvelt. ``The last few games (we) have been pretty good.''
During its decade of dominance, Gonzaga has been challenged at times by Pepperdine, San Diego and Santa Clara. But Saint Mary's may be its toughest league rival, Few said.
``There's been some nice teams in this league,'' he said, ``but they haven't pieced it together.''
Saint Mary's has all the elements of a great team, including good guards in Patrick Mills and Todd Golden, and solid front-court play from Simpson and Omar Samhan.
Mills, a freshman from Australia, is averaging 14.3 points to lead the team, and coach Randy Bennett, in his eighth season, is second only to Few in seniority and wins in the league.
``Every role is filled and they are experienced,'' Few said.
Gonzaga has struggled at times, losing early in the season to Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Its best win is over No. 15 Connecticut, and junior Josh Heytvelt, perhaps the Zags' best player, has struggled all season after returning from a drug suspension and ankle injury.
``It would help us if he was playing at the highest level he is capable of,'' Few said.