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Saint Mary's (Cal)-Loyola Marymount Preview

Saint Mary's has beaten Loyola Marymount nine times in a row, but there are a few reasons the 19th-ranked Gaels should be wary when they step on the Lions' home court Thursday in both teams' West Coast Conference opener.

Loyola Marymount (7-4) has been playing good basketball of late, having won five of its past six games. And the one loss was a three-point defeat last Thursday to a Texas-Arlington team that had handled Saint Mary's rather decisively earlier this season.

The Gaels (10-1) trailed by as many as 20 points against Texas-Arlington on Dec. 9 and never got closer than 11 points in the second half of that 65-51 home loss.

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However, the Lions rallied to get within two points of Texas-Arlington with 3:05 left, and missed two three-pointers in the closing seconds of the 50-47 loss.

"We once again played gutsy and came back right on top of them," Lions coach Mike Dunlap said. "Down two, we had two empty possessions. We had a chance but didn't score.

"This team knows how to push back and fight through adversity. We have done it all year. Playing with effort and will power has been the foundation of this team."

The Lions certainly know how to play close games. Six of their games have been decided by three points or fewer, and the Lions are 3-3 in those games. In fact, since its 79-64 loss at Nevada back on Nov. 14, Loyola Marymount has had a chance to win every game.

Its three losses since then have been by a combined seven points, and include a two-point loss to Connecticut.

Saint Mary's has played only one game in which the final margin was fewer than 14 points, and that was the 61-57 road victory over Dayton when the Gaels nearly blew a 20-point second-half lead.

The Gaels return all five starters who beat Loyola Marymount three times last season and shared the WCC regular-season title with Gonzaga. Center Jock Landale is not one of the five returning starters, but he leads the Gaels in scoring (17.9 points per game) and rebounding (9.5) after coming off the bench a year ago.

Saint Mary's survives on efficiency and teamwork at both ends of the court. The Gaels are fourth in the nation in scoring defense, yielding 57.5 points per game, and are fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.74). They are not a team that overpowers opponents with athletic superiority.

However, the Gaels have not always been as smooth and efficient as they were most of last season.

"I don't know what the deal is, but we're turning the ball over more than last year," coach Randy Bennett said.

Saint Mary's is still turning the ball over just 10.6 times a game, which ranks 14th in the country, but it indicates how high the Gaels' expectations are this season.

It makes you wonder whether the unfamiliar burden of being ranked every week this season has affected Saint Mary's play.

"I don't think so," Bennett said. "We're still trying to get some roles figured out. We're a little choppy. But I don't think (the ranking) is on their minds."

One thing Bennett expects in conference play is for opponents to use zone defenses.

"I do, I do, based on what we did tonight," said Bennett, following last Thursday's victory over South Carolina State.

The Gaels struggled mightily against the zone defense played by South Carolina State. And Bulldogs coach Murray Garvin said he went to the zone only because he had noticed that Saint Mary's had trouble against a zone in its previous games.

"It kind of stifled them," Murray said of his team's zone.

While Saint Mary's will be playing its conference opener after a seven-day layoff, Loyola Marymount got tuned up with a 70-49 victory over Morgan State on Monday.

"We held them under 35 percent from the field and under 50 points," Dunlap said. "We only turned the ball over three times in the second half. We did what we needed to do to put ourselves in the position to win.

"This game was just what the doctor ordered for us. We showed that we can win against different situations and that is huge for us."

The Lions' leading scorer is guard Brandon Brown, who is averaging 15.4 points and has scored at least 22 in four of the last six games.