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Monday, February 4, 2008
Zags have been kings of WCC, but Gaels are closing the gap

By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com

There are no set rules about rivalries.

Colleges don't have to be within bicycling distance of one another, like Duke and North Carolina, and they don't have to be state schools separated only by the labels "University of" and "State." The 866 miles that separate Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are as hard and unfriendly a road as any in college hoops, and it's an ongoing conflict that has defined the West Coast Conference for the past decade.

Randy Bennett
Gaels coach Randy Bennett knows the WCC title goes through Gonzaga.

The Zags have become a household name in hoops, a powerhouse basketball program trapped in a mid-major conference because the school's too small for football. But just like the current WCC standings, No. 23 Saint Mary's (5-1 WCC) has often found itself one step behind Gonzaga (17-5, 6-0 WCC). The Gaels have broken into the national rankings twice this season on the strength of an 18-3 record and nonconference wins over Drake, Oregon and Seton Hall, and they'll resume their chase of the longtime conference leaders tonight at home (ESPN2, 11 ET).

"They're a major factor in what we do," seventh-year Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "We're trying to win the league. And in order to do that, we have to look at the team that's been winning it."

The Gaels have been looking up at Gonzaga for a while now. The Spokane-based school has dominated the WCC with seven consecutive regular-season championships, with a string of NCAA appearances that stretches back to 1999 and includes 12 wins on March's big bracket.

But it was Saint Mary's that fielded the last great WCC team of the pre-G era, back in 1996-97. Ernie Kent led the Gaels to a 23-8 record, overcoming a season-worst 23-point loss at Gonzaga in January and catching fire in February to ride a nine-game winning streak to the league's autobid. There's no telling what Kent might have done with more time in Moraga, but after that championship season, destiny called him back to his alma mater in Oregon. It's a job he's held ever since.

Kent's immediate successors at SMC couldn't come close to replicating his success, and once the Zags dynasty began two years later, the Gaels often served as either a stepping-stone or a footstool for the new kings of the league. A 105-65 blowout in the first round of the 2001 league tourney (a game that featured margins of 50-plus before Gonzaga coach Mark Few went deep into his bench) served as the embarrassing final page in the short novella that was the Dave Bollwinkel era.

In stepped Bennett, who brought plenty of WCC experience with extended assistant coaching stints at Pepperdine and San Diego. Bennett required four years to build the program back up, and on Jan. 8, 2005, Saint Mary's made a resounding statement that it was ready to challenge for the crown again. Behind 16 3-pointers and a 17-point performance by all-time SMC leading scorer and Australian import Daniel Kickert, the Gaels finally broke through and snapped a seven-year, 17-game losing streak in the series. Their 89-81 home win over then-No. 11 Gonzaga was quickly followed by a red blur of SMC students storming the court.

"It was a defining moment for us as a program," Bennett said. "We have a picture from that game in our office, and it's amazing sometimes just to look at the NBA-caliber talent that was there. Adam Morrison was there, that was Ronny Turiaf's last season. Derek Raivio was a sophomore."

The Zags and their future pros did end up exacting revenge with a 80-67 victory in the 2005 WCC championship game. Despite no other wins against top-50 RPI competition, the selection committee was so impressed by the Gonzaga win that the 25-8 Gaels were granted a ticket to the Big Dance as a No. 10 seed.

Saint Mary's has hung tough in the series since, and the days of blowouts are long gone. The Gaels came within a Sean Mallon free throw of possibly toppling the Zags in Spokane two seasons ago, and split the season series last year.

Patrick Mills
Aussie import Patrick Mills has performed at a high level for Saint Mary's.

And in their ongoing effort to dethrone the champions, the Gaels have turned to the overseas market in a big way. An Australian infusion that began in earnest with the 6-foot-10 Kickert has blossomed into a full-blown invasion, with three Aussies on the current roster. Freshman Patrick Mills and a pair of juniors, forward Lucas Walker and guard Carlin Hughes, make up a third of the 2007-08 squad's scoring output.

"We try to get players good enough to play with their guys," Bennett said. "And we try to create an atmosphere in our gym that's conducive to their success."

And that atmosphere is a decidedly Australian one. At a home game on Jan. 21 against Loyola Marymount, the country's flag hung on the McKeon Pavilion wall behind one basket, and fans on both sides of the court traded chants of "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" when one of the Australian players made a particularly spectacular play. During the eight-minute media timeout in the second half, the student section engaged in a raucous sing-along with the old Men at Work classic "Down Under," warning the opposition that they'd better run, they'd better take cover.

"We're starting to serve vegemite sandwiches at the snack bar," Bennett said after that game. "Nah, just kidding. There was never any Australian master plan, and I didn't foresee any of this … we just try to recruit the best players available. But we've received five times the media this season than we have in the past, some because we've been winning, and some because it's an interesting story."

Perhaps the most interesting story of all is point guard Mills, the first freshman to start at SMC since Kickert seven seasons ago. The 6-foot Canberra native, who leads the Gaels in scoring (14.5 points per game), assists (3.4) and minutes played (32), broke through to the national consciousness with a 37-point effort against Kent's Ducks on Nov. 20. He's also one of his nation's first aboriginal basketball standouts, the youngest player ever to play for the Australian national team and a favorite to be picked for this summer's Olympic squad in Beijing.

"He's very, very poised, and his mental toughness is so high," Bennett said. "I can't pinpoint all the ways he makes his fellow players good, how he makes the team better. There's not much freshman about him, he plays like a senior. He's experienced beyond his years."

From what I've heard, they've had a great program for eight or nine years now. … What I've heard is that this is a really big rivalry, and it's great to have rivalry games like this that everyone looks forward to. Come Monday, we're all going to have to put our best foot forward."

Saint Mary's freshman Patrick Mills

Despite all that, though, the 19-year-old Mills still hasn't been part of a Saint Mary's-Gonzaga game yet.

"From what I've heard, they've had a great program for eight or nine years now," Mills said. "I've heard that from Australians who have played there too, like [former Zags and current Australian national league star] John Rillie. What I've heard is that this is a really big rivalry, and it's great to have rivalry games like this that everyone looks forward to. Come Monday, we're all going to have to put our best foot forward."

And one of Australia's favorite sons says there are plenty of budding Saint Mary's fans back home, and his countrymen will have a chance to see what WCC basketball is all about.

"One thing I've been shocked about is how much media [Saint Mary's] is getting back home," Mills said. "A couple of our games already have been replayed on TV there, and the Gonzaga one will be played back there live. It's great to know that we have all that support."

Mills isn't the only reason why the Gaels are achieving national -- and global -- coverage. When he isn't scoring himself, he's usually distributing to SMC's other two double-figure scorers -- 6-11 broad-shouldered sophomore Omar Samhan (12.4 points, 7.9 rebounds per game) and long, athletic junior forward Diamon Simpson (12.7, 9.4). The relative youth of the squad, combined with its early success on the national stage, would seem to indicate the Gaels are poised to challenge Gonzaga's title as conference kings not only in the short term, but for years to come.

"Right now, we're in the moment with this team, the present is all we're focusing on," Bennett said. "But we've worked hard to be in this position, and we have a lot of good, young players. We're a young team with promising freshmen and sophomores, and whatever we're able to do this year, we have the chance next year to be even better."

But the Saint Mary's coach knows there's plenty of work to be done to bridge the gap and achieve parity with Gonzaga, and he has a set milepost in mind as a goal.

"When our fans stop storming the court when we beat them," Bennett said. "That's when I'll know the rivalry is truly even."

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.