San Diego facing steep challenge at No. 18 Saint Mary’s

No. 18 Saint Mary’s looks to stretch the nation’s longest winning streak to 15 games when it faces visiting San Diego on Saturday night in West Coast Conference action at Moraga, Calif.The Gaels (22-6, 13-0 WCC) are closing in on the conference regular-season crown as they lead second-place Gonzaga by two games entering the weekend.Saint Mary’s also stands just five wins shy of the school-record 19-game winning streak it put together during the 2017-18 season.As for Saturday’s contest, the Gaels haven’t lost to San Diego (16-12, 6-7) in more than 10 years. Saint Mary’s has won 19 consecutive meetings since losing 61-43 in San Diego on Jan. 30, 2014.Saint Mary’s did receive a test on Tuesday before finishing a 70-66 home win over San Francisco. The Gaels trailed by four with 5:25 to play before using a 15-4 burst to take control and improve to 13-3 at home.Mitchell Saxen led the way with 20 points and 13 rebounds. He is averaging 11.3 points and a team-leading 7.6 rebounds.”It really just gets down to toughness and physicality,” Saxen said of the late-game success. “We’ve been in that spot before, down four late in the second half early in the season and haven’t gotten things done. But we showed a lot of maturity as a team and stayed on our front foot, stayed aggressive and had a ton of belief in each other and pulled it out.”Alex Ducas added 18 points and Aidan Mahaney had 12 for Saint Mary’s.Saxen’s board work helped the Gaels own a 36-23 rebounding advantage. Saint Mary’s had 12 on the offensive glass.The Gaels also shot four times as many free throws (32 to 8) as San Francisco. Saint Mary’s made 22 to the Dons’ five.”When you go plus-13 (rebounding) in a tight game like that, that does lead to fouls,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “That does lead to getting to the free throw line and we did. I would say that’s the best thing we did.”

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