- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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MORAGA, Calif. -- Ascribing the designation of "statement game" after a big victory can be a tricky business. What exactly is the statement? Are we limited to only one?
Because when Saint Mary's closed out a 79-78 overtime win over Gonzaga at home Saturday afternoon, there were a few things to say about the 11-1 Gaels.
For starters, this team is for real. The best start in school history has now included wins over Washington, Alabama, USC and the No. 24-ranked Bulldogs, who have won nine consecutive West Coast Conference regular-season titles since 2004.
The Gaels, who are looking for their first NCAA berth since 2001, deserve consideration in the top-25 polls. They have good wins over major conference teams. They now have a big win over a ranked, established program. They feature a pair of superior players in senior guards Jackie Nared and Danielle Mauldin, and are looking increasingly worthy of a national ranking, particularly if they continue to have success in a competitive West Coast Conference race.
The Gaels are resilient. After allowing a 17-2 run from Gonzaga that bridged the first and second halves, they clawed back from an 11-point deficit with less than 11 minutes to go in regulation.
And Saint Mary's can win against a quality opponent even when it isn't perfect. Look no further than the last moments of regulation. Down by two points, Nared brought the ball down with 16 seconds to go, dribbled out the clock, pump-faked and put up what might have been an ill-advised 3-point attempted with 0.3 seconds left.
"Would that have been my shot? No," Saint Mary's coach Paul Thomas admitted. "But it was Jackie's shot and it went in."
The Gaels had a 72-71 lead with Gonzaga on the ropes, time only for a miracle tip-in. But Saint Mary's reserve Amanda Arter, who hadn't played the entire game, rolled through a screen at the baseline and got called for a foul on Gonzaga's Lindsay Sherbert, who hit the back end of two free throws to send the game into overtime.
Nared admitted the sequence was a blow. But not a knock-out punch.
"We just wanted to prove we could still get it done in front of everyone," said Nared, who finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds. "We just looked at it as five more minutes of basketball."
Neither team led by more than two during the extra period, and it was a pair of free throws by Mauldin -- who finished with career bests of 24 points and 23 rebounds (one short of the WCC single-game record) -- that ended up being the margin of victory for Saint Mary's.
"Mauldin wanted it more than we did," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said.
Gonzaga had its own star performance from senior guard Haiden Palmer, who put up a career-high 31 points -- but only three in the final 17 minutes of play. She missed a pair of shots in the final five seconds. Palmer understands the new landscape in the WCC, and in particular, the Gaels' place in it.
"We had tons of opportunities to win today," Palmer said. "But they have confidence right now. This entire conference has gotten a lot better and we are not going to get wins like we used to."
Beating Gonzaga has become a regular accomplishment for the Gaels, who have split the last six games in this series -- a run that began in January 2012 when Saint Mary's ended Gonzaga's 34-game conference win streak.
But if there's something different about Saturday's win, it's that the Gaels aren't looking to score the upset, as much as they are assuming a place at the top of the WCC pecking order.
"Gonzaga has been the leader in our league, but we feel like we are getting close to that," Thomas said. "I told the kids that we are playing to our own standards, no one else's. I think we did that today. Just not consistently."
Mauldin said the Gaels are feeling confident.
"I think we feel we are just as good or better than the teams we are playing," Mauldin said. "But it's been a process. It's not just one game. There have been a lot of games leading up to this."
So maybe that's Saint Mary's statement. This win isn't a reflection of overnight success, or an inferior team getting lucky on a good day, but the result of steady improvement, commitment and hard work. It's a combo platter that has allowed the Gaels to pull up alongside Gonzaga and harbor legitimate expectations that they can keep pace the rest of the way.
If you only get to make one statement on a day like this, that's a pretty good one.
Saint Mary's is making a habit of knocking off Gonzaga. And after Saturday's win, the Gaels just might be ready to set the pace in the West Coast Conference.