Last Thursday in Santa Clara, Gonzaga won relatively easily but lost Killian Tillie to a left ankle sprain — his third in less than a year. Without the senior’s services on Saturday, the Zags had to mount a comeback to avoid falling in San Francisco.
Their reward for surviving that trip is a few days back in Spokane and a date Thursday with possibly the worst team in the league, Loyola Marymount. After that, they’re going right back to the Bay where their arch-rival awaits.
Yep, it’s time to talk about those despised Saint Mary’s Gaels.
Since Gonzaga’s rise to prominence, Saint Mary’s has been the lone team in the WCC capable of truly contending with the Zags. We saw that last season, when the Gaels ground down Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament final for a 60-47 win. It was as ugly of a game as Gonzaga had played in years — probably since losing to Saint Mary’s at home in February of 2016.
The two teams have met 101 times, putting Saint Mary’s behind only Portland as Gonzaga’s most frequent opponent all-time. Sure, Gonzaga has won at a commanding 69 percent clip. But that doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story.
Saint Mary’s followed Gonzaga’s approach to developing their basketball program like a little brother. Like the Zags, they’ve got a coach who has stuck around. Coach Randy Bennett arrived in Moraga, California, two years after Mark Few took over in Spokane. A few years after that, he took the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been back six times since.
Like the Zags, they’ve built their program around international players. First it was the Australians. Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova helped elevate Saint Mary’s into a mid-major powerhouse before going on to win NBA titles with the Spurs and Cavaliers respectively. The Aussies are still flocking to Saint Mary’s, but others are as well. The Gaels roster features four Australians, two New Zealanders, an Estonian, a Latvian and an Englishman. They’re more internationally inclined than the Zags, who feature just six foreign-born players.
While Saint Mary’s has followed in Gonzaga’s footsteps to find success, the Gaels haven’t risen quite as high as the Zags.
They still play in a tiny gym. The 3,500 seat University Credit Union Pavilion is often ridiculed for being a “high school gym.” Former BYU guard and elite-level college basketball villain Nick Emery used that phrase in a public Instagram story — his Cougars went on to lose their game in that gym 81-68.
But they pack the place and get as rowdy as any group of fans in the country. Especially for big games. Last season Zag fans and local media members alike took to Twitter to complain about the atmosphere for being too hot, too humid and too full.
Gonzaga has elevated its program and facilities to become among the best in the nation. Saint Mary’s, by comparison, still appears to be a scrappy up-and-comer. Once upon a time, Gonzaga was David fighting the college basketball Goliaths. That’s no longer the case, and Saint Mary’s has stepped into that David role against Gonzaga’s Goliath.
It all makes for one awesome rivalry that is as fun as any in the sport, even if it isn’t the most competitive. For Zag fans though, that’s all the better. We get to have an easily detestable rival, and we get to watch our team beat them way more often than not.