Gonzaga kept its West Coast Conference winning streak alive by opening league play with three consecutive road victories. Its first game back home might not be quite as easy as it once looked.
Pepperdine is surprisingly perfect in conference play, but will take on a No. 15 Bulldogs team shooting for its 25th straight conference win and 17th in a row over the Waves on Thursday night.
It’s no surprise that Gonzaga (14-3, 3-0) is atop the WCC, but Pepperdine (7-12, 3-0) was picked to finish seventh by the conference’s coaches.
With 12 losses in 16 non-conference games - one of them a 67-65 defeat to California Baptist of the NAIA - it appeared the Waves were in trouble. Instead, they are tied with the Bulldogs for first place.
“The first part of the year we were 4-12, but we were motivated to start the new season (conference play),” forward Taylor Darby said after scoring 15 points in an 83-68 win over San Francisco on Saturday. “We need to continue playing smart. Right now we feel really good.”
While Pepperdine has reason to be optimistic - sophomore guard Lorne Jackson was named conference player of the week after averaging 17.7 points in three games - it faces an imposing challenge in Spokane. Gonzaga has won 11 straight at home against the Waves since a loss in February 1998, and 16 overall in the series by an average of 20.5 points.
The Bulldogs have won six in a row since a 35-point loss to Duke on Dec. 19. They opened a stretch of five straight away from their home floor by beating Oklahoma 83-69 on Dec. 31 at Spokane Arena, then defeated Illinois in overtime at the United Center on Jan. 2.
Gonzaga then won at Portland and St. Mary’s before beating San Diego 68-50 on Saturday.
“I told them that’s as good of a five-game stretch as I’ve ever seen one of our clubs play, especially in lieu of the fact that all of them were on the road and none of them on our home floor,” coach Mark Few said. “It’s a heck of a job. I’m really proud of them.”
Elias Harris has been the star, averaging 23.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 63.6 percent shooting in the three games that have extended Gonzaga’s regular-season conference winning streak to 24.
“Before this game in the locker room guys were jumping around and ready to play,” sophomore guard Demetri Goodson said after winning in San Diego. “We knew how big this game was for our team. At practice we were very focused. It will be good to finally get home and play in front of our fans.”
Both Harris and guard Matt Bouldin suffered falls on separate plays against San Diego. Neither anticipates any problems for Thursday, although Bouldin - who averages 15.3 points but was held to six Saturday - said his shooting hand was sore.
One subpar effort from the senior shouldn’t be too alarming to the Bulldogs. Bouldin averaged 20.0 points in the first three games of the road stretch, and 15.0 points and 8.0 assists against the Waves last season.
Pepperdine guard Keion Bell, the team’s leading scorer at 19.2 points a contest, averaged 18.0 points and 11.0 rebounds versus Gonzaga in 2008-09.