- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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MORAGA, Calif. -- St. Mary's coach Paul Thomas sat in his office last Sunday evening, splicing together video highlights to show his team at practice the next day.
It was a typical night, and an atypical one, all at the same time. Because not since Thomas arrived in Moraga, a small, bucolic, college campus nestled in the hills east of Oakland and Berkeley, had he had quite so much material with which to work.
The Gaels are 7-0, the best start in school history. They have wins over Washington -- a Pac-12 team picked to finish in the top half of an improved conference -- Alabama (SEC), Butler (Big East) and Toledo, last season's MAC champion.
St. Mary's is not only positioning itself as a worthy challenger to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, but for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2001 (when current Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves was at the helm). After four straight appearances in the WNIT, the Gaels have been building toward this, winning a combined 62 games the past three seasons.
"I've been preaching the same thing every year since I got here six years ago," Thomas said. "When the players decide they are going to do this and execute as a group, and be accountable to one another, then you've got something. We are reaching our potential. I do not think we've reached it yet. But we feel very good about where we are."
The Gaels returned four starters, led by senior Jackie Nared, who transferred to St. Mary's after spending her freshman season at Maryland. It was a huge change in venue in every way, from the size of the school to the pedigree of the program. She went from a team that assumes it will finish the season in the NCAA tournament to one that is fighting hard to get back there for the first time since most of its players were in elementary school.
But Nared -- a Portland, Ore., native whose father played at Maryland and whose sister, Jaime, is one of the top recruits in the country this year and is headed to Tennessee -- said that St. Mary's was a "fit" for her from the moment she visited campus.
"St. Mary's is about the size of my high school," Nared, a 6-foot-1 guard, said. "But I loved how close-knit the team was, and the class environment. It's been amazing."
Nared has evolved into a centerpiece player. Her scoring has increased steadily through her three seasons in Moraga; this year, she's averaging a team-leading 23.0 points a game, along with 7.8 rebounds.
"Jackie has a comfort level and confidence and concentration right now," Thomas said. "She's feeling it. She's in a place where she's allowed to do the things she's doing and it's a great role for her. And the timing for us has been phenomenal."
Nared spent her summer on campus working on her field goal percentage, getting shots up, honing her game off the dribble. She said she had drifted away from keeping up with her individual workouts last season.
"There's only so much you can do in practice, so I have worked to get the extra work in," Nared said. "I want to be better for myself and for them, too."
"Them" in this case includes experienced teammates such as senior forward Danielle Mauldin, who is averaging 18.7 points and 14.0 rebounds. Sophomore Lauren Nicholson is averaging 15.0 points, with senior Kate Gaze averaging 14.9. All of this says that the Gaels are hardly a one-player team, but the kind of multidimensional group that is built for the postseason.
Which brings us to a key part of the tale. Last season's Gaels also looked headed for an NCAA berth. They were sitting on 19 wins with a handful of games left in the WCC schedule when they played at Pepperdine, a team that had won just one conference game to that point. Thomas spoke to his team before that game, wrote the number "20" on the white board as a reminder of its significance to a team that wanted to be tournament-worthy.
And then the Gaels promptly went out and lost 80-67 and ruined their NCAA résumé.
"We went out and laid an egg," Thomas said. "They knew that cost them an NCAA bid. They were pissed off. If you ask them why they didn't make the tournament, they would say it was that game."
He will not be writing any numbers on the white board, but the players are fully aware that this season's success must be about more than a great opening stretch.
"We don't want to have any regrets this year," Nared said. "We don't want to feel that we didn't go 150 percent. We want to do the right things, execute our fundamentals."
Thomas wants this not just to be a buildup to something big, but an opportunity to build on. He wants his team to be considered a viable option for elite-level California basketball, along with Stanford and Cal, both of which have set the bar high with their Final Four appearances. And he wants his team to do what the St. Mary's men have done in the West Coast Conference -- challenge perennial league favorite Gonzaga.
"I appreciate what Kelly has done at Gonzaga because our league would not be our league without what they've been able to do," Thomas said. "Somebody needed to push the envelope, be the lead dog. And we want to compete with that. But you have to have somebody to compete with.
"Our men's team has changed the culture here, and that rubs off. We want it, too."
But there is much basketball still to be played, including another barometer game at USC on Dec. 19 before the conference season begins with a Dec. 28 showdown against Gonzaga in Moraga.
In the meantime, Thomas sat in his office on a Sunday night and cut highlight videos -- assisted baskets, help defense -- to show his team the good things that can happen when they "have each other's backs."
"This all begins and ends with the players, and anybody who tells you anything else is kidding themselves," Thomas said. "We have a mature group of student athletes who have gone through everything a college athlete can go through."
Except for one thing. Maybe it's time.