Gonzaga driven to finish regular season strong to secure best NCAA Tournament scenario

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MALIBU, Calif. – Gonzaga shouldn’t lack motivation entering its last five regular-season games.

The biggest motivational source arrived last Saturday when the selection committee projected the Zags as the top seed in the West, an ideal postseason path that would put them at the Spokane Arena for the first weekend and close to home in Los Angeles for the regional.

Of course, that’s predicated on the second-ranked Zags (25-1, 11-0 West Coast Conference) stacking up wins, something they’ve done 17 straight times since falling to Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game in late November.

Gonzaga has manhandled most WCC foes, but four of the remaining five matchups are interesting, at least on paper. First up is Pepperdine on Saturday, which gave GU its toughest home test of the season. The Zags held on 75-70 in early January after Killian Tillie swatted a potential tying 3-point attempt by the Waves’ Colbey Ross.

San Francisco, which pushed the Zags to the buzzer before falling 83-79, visits Thursday. Gonzaga travels Feb. 22 to face second-place BYU, which is at full strength with forwards Yoeli Childs and Gavin Baxter back in the mix.

The Zags close with home games against San Diego and rival Saint Mary’s.

First things first. The Waves (14-12, 7-5) should have Gonzaga’s undivided attention. Consistency has eluded Pepperdine, but the Waves are a handful when at the top of their game.

Ross averages 19.8 points and a WCC-leading 7.3 assists. The junior is second nationally in minutes played and fourth with 144 made free throws.

Ross is the program’s all-time assists leader, third in made free throws, fifth in made 3-pointers and sixth in career points. He drained a winning 3-pointer as time expired in the Waves’ 72-69 comeback win over over San Diego.

The Edwards brothers, Kameron and Kessler, are versatile forwards who combine for nearly 31 points and 14.4 rebounds per game. Add in 3-point specialist Skylar Chavez’s 10.8 points and the foursome accounts for 77% of the team’s scoring.

Freshman guard Sedrick Altman, who moved into the starting lineup early in the conference season, has averaged 10 points in the past five games.

Gonzaga committed a season-high 17 turnovers and repeatedly left Chavez and Jan Zidek, who has missed the past 10 games with a hand injury, open behind the arc in the first meeting. The two made 5 of 10 from distance.

The second-ranked Zags are coming off an impressive 90-60 road rout over Saint Mary’s. Tillie scored 19 points in his first game back from a sprained ankle. The senior forward gets a few extra recovery days since Gonzaga didn’t play Thursday.

The Zags are trying to extend numerous streaks. They’ve won 38 straight against the Waves since a 2002 setback in Malibu. They’ve won 38 consecutive WCC regular-season contests.

Gonzaga has captured 17 road games in a row, the longest active streak in the country. The Zags are two wins away from securing their eighth straight WCC regular-season championship and three from an outright crown. Gonzaga has won or shared 18 of the past 19 titles.

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