USF and St. Mary’s basketball teams seek to end numerous Gonzaga No. 1 streaks

Of all the amazing stats about Gonzaga – and there are an incredible number of them – this one might be considered the most amazing:

It’s been over eight years since a WCC team other than St. Mary’s or BYU beat the Zags.

Gonzaga lost 69-66 in San Diego on February 22, 2014. Since then, the Zags have won 114 straight games (including in the WCC Tournament) against conference foes other than the Gaels or Cougars.

USF gets the chance to end that streak – and a few others – Thursday night when the top-ranked Zags (23-2, 12-0) visit the Hilltop.

The USF bench, including head coach Todd Golden, are delighted to salute Jamaree Bouyea (1) in the Dons’ 88-85 win over Santa Clara on Jan. 29.

Christina Leung/USF Athletics

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere, great support,” USF head coach Todd Golden said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “Analytically, we have a legitimate opportunity to win this game.”

If USF (22-7, 9-5) pulls off the upset, it would also end the Zags’ 16-game winning streak, 11-game road winning streak, 33-game winning streak against WCC teams and their 22-game winning streak against the Dons.

USF last defeated the Zags in a 66-65 decision on February 18, 2012, on the Hilltop.

One man not discounting the Dons’ chances is Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, whose team faces No. 23 St. Mary’s (22-6, 10-3) in Moraga on Saturday night.

“It’s basically like a Big 12 road trip with the level of these teams,” Few said after the Zags’ 81-69 win over Santa Clara on Saturday night. “They are physical teams, they are big, they can match us inside and they are old.

“It’s a journey as difficult as you can imagine.”

Going against the Zags is considered pretty damn tough. They lead the nation in points per game (89.5, the fourth straight season they’ve been the top scorers) and field goal percentage (52.9). Through Tuesday, they were second in the nation in field goal percentage defense (37.2).

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme scored 23 points in a win over Santa Clara on Saturday.  He leads the WCC with 18 points per game.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme scored 23 points in a win over Santa Clara on Saturday. He leads the WCC with 18 points per game.

Young Kwak/Associated Press

Junior forward Drew Timme leads the WCC in points per game at 18. Senior guard Andrew Nembhard leads the conference in assists per game at 5.7. Seven-foot freshman Chet Holmgren, referred to as a “unicorn” by Golden, leads the WCC in field goal percentage (62) and blocked shots per game (3.5).

Golden and St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett agrees the No. 1 problem in trying to beat the nation’s No. 1 team is limiting turnovers and preventing the Zags from getting too much counterattack opportunities.

“They’re also very effective on the half court,” Golden said, “but you give yourself a chance if you make it a half court game. If you allow them to go up and down during the transition, they make part of the elite. They’ve been elite that way for the last decade.

As Bennett succinctly put it, if the Zags “get easy transition baskets, heat up the bus.”

The Dons and Gaels have each lost 16-point decisions to Gonzaga this season, but every head coach can take positives from those losses.

USF led by 11 in the first half and was tied with the Zags going into the second half.

“I thought we controlled and dictated the pace of the game” in the first half, Golden said.

St. Mary’s trailed by 21 points early in the second half before cutting their deficit to eight with three minutes to go.

“About 13 minutes there in the second half,” Bennett said, “we played pretty well, we played well – and that’s how you’re going to have to play to beat them.”

St. Mary’s has lost seven straight to the Zags since what is arguably the biggest win in school history, a 60-47 shock in the 2019 WCC Tournament Finals. this week Gonzaga were the highest ranked team in the country when the Gaels won.

St. Mary's head coach Randy Bennett celebrates after the Gaels upset Gonzaga 60-47 in the 2019 WCC Tournament Championship game in Las Vegas.

St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett celebrates after the Gaels upset Gonzaga 60-47 in the 2019 WCC Tournament Championship game in Las Vegas.

John Locher/Associated Press 2019

“There’s a lot of phases where you have to be very good at to beat Gonzaga,” Bennett said, “so they don’t lose much. The only thing we have going for us is we’re a pretty good defensive team, so that gives you a chance.

“If you’re not, you can’t beat them.”

Partly because they play at a rather deliberate pace in attack, the Gaels lead the WCC in the fewest points allowed per game at 60.

Bennett is in his 21st season as head coach of the Gaels, and they have all but clinched an NCAA Tournament berth for the eighth time in his tenure.

USF hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. With a NET (NCAA rating tool) rating of 27 on Wednesday, the Dons are in good shape to get an overall on-court offer of 68, but they’re still likely have some work to do.

Upending Gonzaga would give USF fans a double iron: the excitement of beating a top team and the satisfaction of knowing their Dons would be heading to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than two decades.

“It would definitely be a 2 for 1,” Golden said. “If we can find a way on Thursday night, it’s out of the question” to enter the NCAA field.


6 p.m. 1 Gonzaga (23-2, 12-0) at USF (22-7, 9-5) ESPN2

7 p.m. No. 23 St. Mary’s (22-6, 10-3) at San Diego (14-13, 7-7)

7 p.m. Santa Clara (18-10, 8-5) at Pepperdine (7-22, 1-13)

He added that beating the Zags would mean a lot not only to USF fans, but also to its players, coaching staff, and “really, everyone on campus.” A victory on Thursday night would go a long way.

Briefly: It will be Senior Night on the Hilltop on Thursday and at Moraga on Saturday. Among the players the Dons will honor are full-back Jamaree Bouyea and striker Yauhen Massalski. … Massalski leads the WCC in rebounds per game at 9.7. Bouyea is fourth in the conference in points per game at 17.3. … The Zags clinched their 10th consecutive WCC regular-season title with their win over the Broncos. Gonzaga’s 12-point winning margin was the smallest in conference play this season.

Steve Kroner is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: skroner@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @SteveKronerSF

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