Monday, March 7, 2005
Was getting to WCC finals enough?
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Saint Mary's was just about to walk back into the locker room one more time before tipoff and coach Randy Bennett was pacing.
Are you loose?
"No," Bennett said in advance of Sunday night's WCC semifinal against nemesis Santa Clara, a team that had swept the Gaels in the regular season.
Are you tight?
"No," he said again. "I just want to get to the championship game."
Bennett knows the drill. Lose to Santa Clara, regardless if it were on their home court, and his Gaels would give the NCAA Tournament selection committee a reason not to take Saint Mary's. Really? Even with 24 wins heading into the semifinal game against the Broncos? That's not enough?
Sure, three losses to a team that finished tied for third in one of the top-10 conferences in the country isn't a crime. This is the same team that beat North Carolina and Stanford this season. But it's also a team that lost to Yale and Central Connecticut State.
Forget this is the WCC -- one of the hottest conferences in the country, quickly becoming the place to play on the West Coast outside of the Pac-10.
This is still Saint Mary's.
The Gaels have one win over Gonzaga at home. They won at Cal, the eighth place team in the Pac-10. They won at UNLV, the fourth best team in the Mountain West. They won at San Diego State, which finished in sixth in the same league. They also played two non-Division I teams, including Notre Dame de Namur (????).
Still, the Gaels entered Sunday night's game with an 18-4 record with a full roster. Star guard Paul Marigney, the leading returning scorer in the WCC, sat out the first nine games to get eligible. The Gaels were also without their top rebounder in Frederic Adjiwanou for the first four games due to an eligibility question.
Adjiwanou and Marigney missed the four Coaches vs. Cancer Classic games that opened the season, which included two ESPN2 appearances in New York City against Memphis and Mississippi State. They lost both of them and were probably forgotten nationally until they upset Gonzaga on Jan. 8.
But the selection committee doesn't always cut slack for teams that have eligibility issues like it often does for injuries. So, it's not like this is a resume that screams, "Please take me!"
"It's been in the back of our minds of what else do we have to do?" said senior guard E.J. Rowland. "We've got 24 wins and it's like we still need to do more."
The tension was palpable during Sunday night's 69-64 win over Santa Clara that advanced the Gaels to Monday night's championship game against Gonzaga.
During the first half, the Gaels were down 23-15 with three players -- Adjiwanou, Blake Sholberg and thier second-leading scorer Daniel Kickert -- on the bench with three fouls each.
Pacing? Bennett rubbed his brow every few seconds. The tension on the bench was excruciating to watch.
"I think the players were tight," Bennett said. "They probably watch too much TV, listening to who is on the bubble and who isn't."
The game was brutal to watch, with the Gaels playing the ugly style of ball the Broncos demand. St. Mary's shot a paltry 15 percent on 3s (3-of-19) overall.
Kickert finally kicked into gear in the second half, scoring all 17 of his points in the second half. But he played with a strained right knee that he injured in practice last Friday and a tweaked left ankle that he hurt during the game. He was noticeably limping during the second half and Bennett was unsure how much he could play Monday night.
When the game was over, the Gaels were exhausted. They knew, they knew that they absolutely had to win this game.
"The first time we played these guys (the Broncos) they blew us out at our place. Then we lost to them in a close game at home," Marigney said. "I'm just so relieved to be in the final. I pay attention to all the stuff going on and see what the other teams are doing. I know we can compete with other teams in the country."
The coaching staff knew that the players were savvy to the anxiety that was building around the program if the Gaels didn't get back to the final. The ugliness that was this semifinal game didn't help any impressions. If you watched this game then you might not think Saint Mary's looks like an NCAA team.
Bennett assured us that Monday night's championship game would look different with lots of offense because Gonzaga is so hard to defend but they will allow the Gaels to score, too.
"It was real tense," Marigney said of the pregame mood. "We think we're in, we talk about getting in all the time but we knew we couldn't book it. We knew we weren't in for sure.
Beating the Broncos gives the Gaels another road win, their ninth true road win of the season.
Is that enough? Not sure. If the Gaels were to get embarrassed by the Zags on ESPN Monday night, then would that leave a sour impression? Possibly. Do they have to win?
"I would think we should be in if we win or lose," Bennett said. "Don't you? I don't know. You don't know. No one does."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.