Gonzaga-Saint Mary's (Cal) Preview

The Associated Press

Gonzaga had won eight consecutive outright West Coast Conference regular-season titles before sharing the championship with Saint Mary's last season.

Judging by the way both teams are playing, this season's league crown could again come down to these perennial powers.

The No. 21 Bulldogs put their season-high eight-game winning streak on the line Thursday night when they try for a fourth straight road win over the Gaels, who are looking for a sixth consecutive victory overall.

Saint Mary's (15-2, 4-0) had challenged Gonzaga for the WCC regular-season title in recent years, but last season the Gaels finished with the same 11-3 league mark as the Bulldogs to grab a share of the title for the first time since 1996-97. After each team won on the other's home floor in 2010-11, Gonzaga beat Saint Mary's 75-63 in the finals of the WCC tournament.

Though Gonzaga (13-2, 3-0) has won 32 of the last 39 meetings between the schools, this matchup has blossomed into more of a rivalry with Saint Mary's winning at least once in the series in four of the last five seasons.

Gonzaga, however, might currently be playing its best basketball of 2011-12.

With victories over Arizona, Butler and Xavier to highlight its current eight-game streak that followed consecutive losses at Illinois and against a Michigan State team currently ranked sixth in the country, Gonzaga should be well prepared to face a strong Saint Mary's squad in a hostile environment.

Putting up 81.7 points per game while winning their first three WCC contests by an average margin of 29.7 points, the Bulldogs have won their last three trips to Saint Mary's by a total of 13 points.

"We're looking forward to it being loud Thursday night," said Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova after his team improved to 11-0 at home with an 87-72 win over San Francisco on Monday.

Gonzaga junior forward Elias Harris has totaled 49 points and 19 rebounds in two games at Saint Mary's. He scored 18 and teammate Sam Dower finished with a team-high 21 off the bench in the Bulldogs' 89-85 overtime win in northern California on Feb. 24.

The 6-foot-9 Dower, who scored 17 in Saturday's 82-60 win over Santa Clara, has averaged 15.4 points in his last five games.

Saint Mary's will get its first look at Gonzaga freshman Kevin Pangos, who averages a team-leading 14.2 points.

Dellavedova has scored 45 points while going 14 of 29 from the field in the last two games versus Gonzaga. The junior scored a career-high 27 against the Dons on Monday, and has averaged 18.8 points and 7.2 assists in his last five games overall.

Saint Mary's has averaged 82.8 points and shot 50.7 percent during its five-game winning streak since losing 72-59 to fourth-ranked Baylor at the Las Vegas Classic on Dec. 22.

"I think we improved. I think the Baylor game might have helped us," coach Randy Bennett told Saint Mary's official website.

Saint Mary's is looking to snap a five-game skid against Top 25 opponents that dates to a 75-68 win over No. 9 Villanova during the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament. The Gaels have dropped three straight at home against ranked schools - two versus Gonzaga - since beating No. 12 Oregon 99-87 on Nov. 20, 2007.

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