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Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Saint Mary's leaves no doubt this time

By Andy Katz

There was no need for a hello. All Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett had to say was this: “Takes us off the bubble.’’

Well, I don’t have to do that. Neither does Joe Lunardi or anyone else. Saint Mary’s did it for itself Monday night with a convincing 81-62 victory over Gonzaga in the West Coast tournament title game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the school’s first WCC tourney title in 13 years.

The second half wasn’t even that close. If you were looking for how a team that was on the bubble should earn its way into the dance, then I give you the Gaels as Exhibit A. No one should leave their fate to chance or the selection committee when the opportunity is in front of it to grab the bid.

St. Mary's
The Gaels snapped a six-game losing streak to Gonzaga en route to a WCC title.
Saint Mary’s certainly had its moments this season with a win at Utah State and a blowout home win over San Diego State. But wondering if the Gaels had done enough was fair game. SMC missed out on beating Vanderbilt at home and had only won one out of four games against Portland and Gonzaga in the regular season.

Yet after the Gaels pounded the Pilots in the WCC semifinals, Portland coach Eric Reveno told me he thought the Gaels were better than a year ago at this juncture. That’s high praise considering Saint Mary’s had Diamon Simpson and NBA-second round pick and Australian Olympian Patty Mills. But Mills was coming off a broken wrist and clearly wasn’t the same in the WCC tournament when the Zags ran the Gaels out of Vegas.

“We were really good -- we were 18-1,’’ Bennett said by phone from Las Vegas late Monday night. “But then Patty got hurt.’’

This season, Bennett knew the Gaels had a chance to get into the Dance even with a loss to Gonzaga. But he was also realistic about it and didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The stigma of being the team that couldn’t get past the WCC champ would be hard to overlook.

“You have to have the belief that you can beat them,’’ Bennett said. “We can come up with all sorts of excuses, but the fact is that they beat us. There was frustration. They had won. We hadn’t won a championship. We knew we had to beat those guys because we hadn’t in a while.’’

And remember, Saint Mary’s was making a run in the second half of the season without Wayne Hunter, its best breakdown guard who had been out with a torn ACL. So there was reason to feel angst about this squad.

But Omar Samhan continues to be the horse in the middle and the shooting of Mickey McConnell and Ben Allen -- as well as the slashing ability of Matthew Dellavedova -- was all on against the Zags. So now the Gaels can relax on Selection Sunday. Any talk of adding another game like last year (when the Gaels played Eastern Washington in a veiled attempt to show the selection committee that Mills was healthy enough to play) is now moot. Even though his team is again one game short of the maximum, Bennett said his team won’t be searching for another opponent. It gets the much-more enjoyable task of scouting a NCAA first-round opponent.

“When you get an at-large berth that you didn’t know you were going to get, there is jubilation and it’s awesome,’’ Bennett said. “But the other side is a big downer. The whole school is watching to see your name and it doesn’t get called. That did motivate our guys last year. You don’t want to leave it in the hands of the committee because they can evaluate it and anything can happen.’’

Saint Mary’s is a quaint school nestled in the hills of Moraga, Calif. The scene is classic Bay Area with its pleasing weather and comfortable living, but it doesn’t exactly scream hoop hotbed. That’s why winning the WCC will be treated as something unique.

“This is a huge deal for us,’’ Bennett said. “All of Saint Mary’s can rally behind this. It’s a great deal for all people here at the school, for the community, for everyone here.’’