Gonzaga hasn’t faced many must-win games in the regular season over the past quarter-century.
But Saturday’s matchup against No. 17 Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., might be one of them if the Bulldogs hope to continue their streak of NCAA Tournament appearances dating to 1999.
Sure, the Bulldogs (17-6) still could earn an automatic bid by winning the West Coast Conference tournament. But that’s not a given considering they fell two games behind first-place Saint Mary’s with a 64-62 defeat to the visiting Gaels last Saturday.
The Bulldogs, who dropped out of the Top 25 three weeks ago for the first time since 2016, responded with a 96-64 victory at home against lowly Portland on Wednesday for their sixth win in their past seven games.
Gonzaga freshman post Braden Huff came off the bench to score a game-high 25 points, and Anton Watson added 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field.
“It just takes some time, high emotion, and there was a lot put into that thing,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of overcoming last Saturday’s setback. “Sometimes you just have to let them recover and heal. I say this all the time. The last loss of the year in the NCAA Tournament, players come back faster than anybody, it takes like 24 hours. Staff, it takes a little bit longer, and fans never recover.”
Gonzaga players echoed that sentiment.
“We use it as fuel,” center Graham Ike said following the loss to Saint Mary’s. “We come back on Monday, we get better from it and continue to grow.”
The Wildcats (16-6) know the feeling, overcoming a stretch of three losses in four games with a 109-77 victory Tuesday at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
Antonio Reeves drained six 3-pointers to highlight his 24-point performance for Kentucky, and Rob Dillingham added 20 points. Justin Edwards and Jordan Burks both hit career highs with 17 and 13 points, respectively, with Aaron Bradshaw scoring 12 and Zvonimir Ivisic 11.
“It’s just getting our mojo back, coming off the two (home) losses,” Reeves said. “It’s devastating, but we just stayed in the gym, stayed focused as a collective group.”
Kentucky played Tuesday without starting point guard D.J. Wagner, who missed his third consecutive game with an ankle injury. Starting forward Tre Mitchell was sidelined with a back issue, and coach John Calipari said he expects those players to return “in a week or two,” meaning they’re unlikely to play against the Zags.
The Wildcats’ past two home games have ended in a 94-91 overtime loss to Florida and a 103-92 defeat to No. 5 Tennessee.
“I’ve done this a long, long time,” Calipari said. “The ups and downs of this — that’s what it is. It’s just, at Kentucky, the ups are like, don’t sleep for two days. And the downs are, ‘I’m gonna kill everybody. Everybody needs to leave.’ That’s what it is. But if you’re gonna coach at Kentucky or play at Kentucky, you better deal with it. Because it is not changing. And I imagine it’s been that way for 50 years.”
This will be the second consecutive season that Gonzaga and Kentucky have met. The Bulldogs won 88-72 on Nov. 20, 2022, at the Spokane (Wash.) Arena.
–Field Level Media
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