Gonzaga returns to the Top 25 in time to face the only West Coast Conference team to win in Spokane in almost five years.
Looking for an eighth consecutive victory, the No. 25 Bulldogs try to avenge last season’s home defeat to BYU on Thursday night.
Backed by preseason All-American Kyle Wiltjer and talented sophomore big man Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga (13-3, 5-0) was ninth in the AP Poll to start the season. However, the Bulldogs fell out after a 71-66 home loss to UCLA dropped them to 6-3 on Dec. 12. Making matters worse, they lost 7-foot-1 senior Przemek Karnowski to a season-ending back injury.
But Gonzaga has managed to turn things around while averaging 88.9 points and shooting 51.8 percent in the last seven games after scoring 73.9 per contest and shooting 47 percent in the first nine.
“We try to play well together,” said Wiltjer, who has averaged 27 points and shot 57.4 percent in the last four after shooting 44.8 percent in the first 12 contests.
Though the Bulldogs have already dropped two home games for the first time since 2010-11, they press forward trying to improve to 4-0 at home in the WCC.
Gonzaga has lost only seven times in the last 142 conference contests at home. The most recent, a 73-70 defeat to BYU on Feb. 28, snapped a 41-game winning streak at the McCarthey Athletic Center and was the Bulldogs’ first league defeat there since a two-point loss to Saint Mary’s on Jan. 27, 2011.
Kyle Collinsworth (14.9 points per game) scored a game-high 20 points for the Cougars, who led throughout and overcame 42.4 percent shooting by holding the Bulldogs to 37 percent in the second half and having a 19-12 advantage in second-chance points.
“They came in here and were just far more aggressive than we were,” coach Mark Few said after his No. 3 Bulldogs were upset.
Collinsworth, leading scorer Chase Fischer (18.1 ppg) and backup center Corbin Kaufusi are the only current Cougars who played in that game. However, BYU (12-5, 3-1) has averaged 93.3 points and has won three straight – including its first road game in five tries – since an 85-74 loss at Saint Mary’s to open league play.
That momentum could benefit the Cougars in a hostile environment Thursday.
“I’m very excited,” said freshman Zac Seljaas, who has averaged 16 points and gone 14 of 26 from 3-point range in the last three games. “I like playing on the road. Going in and making the crowd mad because you’re scoring more than them, there’s nothing better. I feel like we can go in and play our game.”
So too should the Bulldogs, who have scored at least 85 points and held opponents to 43.2 percent shooting in their first three conference home contests. Wiltjer scored 32 points and Sabonis had 28 with a career-high 17 boards in Saturday’s 85-74 home victory over Portland. Gonzaga held the Pilots to 4-of-20 shooting from 3-point range and overcame a 42.2 percent effort from the floor and 16 turnovers.
“It’s a good win,” Few said. “Any time we can dig out a win in the league, with this group, we’re going to celebrate it and feel good about it.”