One month after Jock Landale scored at will against his team in Spokane, Gonzaga coach Mark Few decided to make someone else beat his team in Saturday’s rematch.
He instructed his team to deny the Saint Mary’s star the ball whenever possible and double him every time he caught it on the low block.
Flawless execution helped make that simple strategy effective as Gonzaga neutralized Landale in a way no other opponent has this season. He scored a season-low four points and seldom managed to even get a shot off during the Zags’ 78-65 victory.
Turning Saint Mary’s All-American candidate into a non-factor paved the way for Gonzaga to transform Saturday’s West Coast Conference showdown into a rout. The Zags exploded out of the blocks quickly, led by 12 or more the entire second half and snapped the Gaels 19-game winning streak.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are tied atop the WCC standings at 13-1 with four games remaining in league play. They’re both likely to finish in a first-place tie and settle things with a rubber match in the WCC title game in Las Vegas next month.
If the last five games between the two teams are any indication, Landale’s performance may be the barometer for who wins that showdown.
One of the biggest reasons that Gonzaga swept all three matchups against Saint Mary’s in convincing fashion last season was that the Zags were able to hold Landale in check. The skilled 6-foot-11 Aussie got into foul trouble in all three games trying to guard the mammoth Przemek Karnowski on the low block and struggled to score with his usual efficiency inside against Karnowski and 7-foot freshman Zack Collins.
With Karnowski having graduated and Collins having left early for the NBA, Gonzaga does not have the same amount of size to throw at Landale this season. Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie are both ultra-athletic forwards who are excellent defending in space, but neither are any match for Landale one-on-one in the paint or at the rim.
Landale logged 37 minutes in last month’s Saint Mary’s victory over Gonzaga and sank 12 of the 15 shots he attempted. He left his imprint on the game down the stretch by spinning around Williams for a layup to put Saint Mary’s ahead for good with 1:07 to go and making Williams pay for fronting him with another layup two possessions later to extend the Gaels’ lead to three with 15.5 seconds to play.
The second time around, Few opted not to let Landale operate so freely in the paint. Crisp double teams arrived as soon as Landale caught the ball, limiting him to only four field goal attempts. By the time he even took his first shot, Saint Mary’s already trailed 26-10.
Landale adjusted by seeking out open shooters as soon as he saw the double team coming, but the Zags typically rotated fast enough to contest those perimeter shots. Landale finished with only four assists as Saint Mary’s sank only 5 of 20 3-pointers.
Saint Mary’s might have survived an off night offensively against other WCC foes. Not against Gonzaga.
The Zags shredded the Gaels’ suspect defense for an impressive 1.26 points per possession. Rui Hachimura once again proved too athletic for Saint Mary’s to handle off the dribble as he scored 21 points on 10-for-14 shooting. Zach Norvell Jr. knocked down a trio of threes and Williams scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s will almost certainly be in the NCAA tournament, but it’s the Zags who are now in better shape seeding-wise.
They avoided a season sweep at the hands of their hated rivals and put themselves in position to potentially earn a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament if they win out until Selection Sunday.
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