Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Standings (through games of 1/30/10)
- Saint Mary’s 6-1 (19-3)
- Gonzaga 6-1 (17-4)
- Portland 5-2 (14-7)
- San Francisco 3-4 (8-14)
- Pepperdine 3-4 (7-16)
- Loyola Marymount 2-5 (11-12)
- San Diego 2-5 (9-14)
- Santa Clara 1-6 (9-15)
Now it Gets Interesting
San Francisco’s 81-77 overtime win over Gonzaga at home on Jan. 30 did several things, among which were stopping the Zags’ current nine-game winning streak, its 22-game WCC winning streak and its 27-game streak in regular season play (its last loss was in the 2007 conference tournament final against San Diego). More important than all that, however, it gave new life to the second half of the WCC season.
By proving itself vulnerable against a fired-up San Francisco team that had suffered mostly disappointment this season, Gonzaga may have opened the door for Saint Mary’s or Portland to entertain serious hopes of stopping its most impressive streak – that of nine straight conference championships. A tenth straight seemed likely after the Zags swept its most difficult stretch of road games against Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego Jan. 14-21, but signs of Zag distress turned up before the San Francisco stunner: they allowed Pepperdine to score 55 second-half points in an unexpectedly close 91-84 home win on Jan. 21, struggled to a halftime tie against Loyola Marymount two nights later before winning 85-69, then trailed Santa Clara almost the entire game on Jan. 28 before pulling out a 71-64 squeaker. The San Francisco loss two nights later before a packed and vocal War Memorial Gymnasium crowd seemed like the next stop on a trip to Problem City.
But is that trip over now? Or do the Pilots and Gaels have a better chance during the second phase of the conference season than they did in the first? It won’t take long to find the answer, as Portland rolls into Zagland Thursday night (Feb. 4) fresh off a weekend trip to the Bay Area in which it played more like Gonzaga than Gonzaga. The Pilots first handled San Francisco 74-58 behind Jared Stohl’s 22 points on 6-12 three-point shooting that put Stohl just three behind Portland’s all-time long-range record of 211. Stohl quickly broke that record two nights later as the Pilots dismantled the same Santa Clara team that had stymied Gonzaga, 74-52. The junior from Marysville, WA, canned four three-pointers against Santa Clara on the way to a team-high 16 points. Since moving into the starting lineup for injured guard Nik Raivio four games ago, Stohl has averaged 18.5 ppg and Portland has won all four contests.
So, does Portland have the momentum that will allow it to accomplish this week at Gonzaga what it couldn’t pull off at home on Jan. 9? In that game, the Pilots played the Zags tough and rallied late to close within three points in the final seconds. Stohl’s seemingly-impossible buzzer-beater from the sideline looked good until it rimmed out to give the Zags an 81-78 win. Portland certainly looked confident against Santa Clara, holding off the same furious defensive pressure that Kerry Keating’s troops showed against Gonzaga. The Pilots relentlessly pounded the ball into the paint to Luke Sikma, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half. Robin Smuelders, the more prolific of the Pilots’ frontline stalwarts, scored only six against Santa Clara, but was almost unstoppable in the first Gonzaga game. The rugged 6’10 senior from Braunschweig, Germany, made 9 of 10 shots against Gonzaga on the way to a game-high 24 points. The matchup of Smuelders and Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, another German, will be one of the most intriguing of Thursday night’s game. It will be televised by ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Pacific.
Saint Mary’s begins the second half with games at home against Santa Clara on Thursday and San Francisco on Saturday. The Gaels handled both easily on the road to open the season, and are coming off an impressive road swing to southern California last week in which they throttled Pepperdine 88-71 and Loyola Marymount 85-67. The games against two long-time Bay Area rivals, both energized by their performance against Gonzaga, will set the stage for the Gaels’ own Zag showdown next week. Saint Mary’s also played Gonzaga tough in their initial meeting in Moraga on Jan. 14, losing 89-82 after cutting a 15-point second-half lead to 84-80 with less than a minute left. But they haven’t won in Spokane since 1995, and Gonzaga has won 32 of 38 games since then.
The Feb. 11 showdown will give the Gaels a chance to overcome that history and record a signature win for the season that will improve their chances for an at-large NCAA bid if they fail to capture the WCC’s automatic invitation. Saint Mary’s has the memory of last year’s NCAA snub, when they were 26-5 but lost all three games to Gonzaga and, thus, didn’t get an at-large bid, etched deeply in its memory. Regardless of how Portland fares this Thursday, the Gaels will head north on a mission, and their road success this season (8-0) gives them added hope. They are only one of two teams in the country to be undefeated in true road games, the other being Syracuse with a 5-0 road mark.
By beating Gonzaga, San Francisco not only enlivened the WCC race, but also gave hope to its fans for a worthwhile season under second-year coach Rex Walters. The Dons are tied with Pepperdine for fourth place in the league, and maintaining that position would make this year worthwhile. The schedule is not promising, however, as the Dons have a difficult road trip this week to San Diego on Thursday and across the Bay Bridge on Saturday to face Saint Mary’s. The San Diego game counts as a must-win, as the Toreros are one of the teams currently below San Francisco in the standings and must be beaten to stay that way. The Saturday contest against Saint Mary’s in Moraga will be a difficult rematch as the Gaels romped 83-62 in their first game. The Dons have the best chance to cement their position with a Feb. 11 rematch with Pepperdine at home, although the Waves creamed them 83-68 earlier in Malibu. After that game and a contest against LMU two nights later, San Francisco finishes with a brutal road swing to Santa Clara, Portland and Gonzaga. If Walters’ crew holds on to its fourth-place position, it will have earned it.