After splitting their final two WCC matchups, Saint Mary’s heads into the conference tournament ready to build on their already impressive NCAA Tournament resume.
(Photo C/O Ryan Ford)
By Ryan Ford
Saint Mary’s, for the first time since 2015-16, has ended their regular season schedule with a share of the West Coast Conference title, going 14-2 in conference games and 25-6 overall.
In their final game at UCU Pavilion in front of a sold-out home crowd, the Gaels gave their seniors a well deserved send off with an emphatic win over Pacific, 83-52.
Senior guard Logan Johnson continued his recent tear with a game-high 29 points on a remarkably efficient 12-15 from the floor to go along with seven assists. Senior guard Alex Ducas chipped in 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocks (both game-highs) in an all-around effort, while senior forward Kyle Bowen chipped in four rebounds, three assists and three steals with a plus/minus of +35 in 28 minutes played.
(Photo C/O Tod Fierner)
The win guaranteed at least a share of the WCC title, as Saint Mary’s held a one-game lead at the time over rival Gonzaga.
The anticipated final matchup between the bitter rivals took place Saturday in Spokane, broadcasted nationally on ESPN. In what began as a close game, Gonzaga’s nation-leading offense went on a 17-1 run starting at the 6:54 mark in the first half, ending the half with a 39-26 lead.
Gonzaga started and finished with a full-court press that immediately forced the Gaels into uncharacteristic turnovers, including eight in the first half that led to 16 points-off-turnovers for the Zags. Even when the Gaels were able to break past half court, the pressure consistently drained around 9-10 seconds off of their shot clock, leading to several forced shots and shot-clock violations.
Freshman phenom Aidan Mahaney struggled in the first-half, as he was held scoreless on two shot-attempts while commiting three turnovers. The Zags keyed in defensively on Mahaney after he lit them up for 18 points (16 in the 2nd half/OT) in their first meeting.
The Gaels made a second-half run, eventually cutting the deficit to five points with 3:08 left in the game, but the Zags never lost control and held on for the victory, 77-68.
Johnson again paced both teams in scoring, finishing with 27 points and five rebounds, but had only one teammate join him with double-digit scoring. Meanwhile, Gonzaga had a much more balanced attack, with four players reaching double-digits in scoring, led by senior forward Drew Timme’s 19 points.
“They (Gonzaga) always test you on your on-ball coverage… There’s a reason they lead the country in scoring every year,” said Head Coach Randy Bennett postgame after the Zags 77-point effort. (AP News, 2023)
Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few showed their opponent respect with his postgame comments, “Saint Mary’s has had a heck of a year and it was a heck of a game. We could not put them away. It seemed like there were three or four opportunities, but it just shows what a tough champion they are.” (Jeff Faraudo, 2023)
While a loss to their biggest rivals in the last game of the regular season undoubtedly leaves the Gaels with a bad-taste in their mouths, they must quickly shift their focus to the upcoming WCC conference tournament.
Despite ending the season with the same conference win/loss record as Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s was awarded the number one overall seed in the tournament as a result of a tie-breaking measure chosen by the WCC, “the No. 1 seed into the conference tournament was decided by which teams held a higher NET ranking this morning: The Gaels remained No. 7, the Zags improved one spot to No. 9.” (Faraudo, 2023)
Below is the bracket for the upcoming WCC tournament (held in Las Vegas, Nevada), with Saint Mary’s scheduled to play their next game on Monday, March 6.
(Photo C/O WCC Sports & NCAA)
This season marks the third time in the past four seasons that Saint Mary’s has won 25-plus games.
Johnson finished the season leading the team in points per game (14.7), assists per game (3.7) and steals per game (1.5, sixth in the WCC). He heads to Las Vegas playing some of the best basketball of his collegiate career, averaging 25.2 points on 62% shooting over the last six contests.
Mahaney ended his campaign second on the team in scoring (14.6 per game, first among WCC freshmen) despite not being inserted into the starting lineup until the 10th game of the season. He seems to be the likely choice for WCC Freshman of the Year, which will be named later this week.
Another standout, junior center Mitchell Saxen shined throughout the season in his first year as a starter. He finished fourth on the team in points (11.8 per game) and first in rebounds (8.0 per game) and blocks (1.2 per game, first in the WCC).
Bennett, after guiding the Gaels to their 16th 20-win season of his tenure and winning his 500th career game earlier this season, has been named to the 2023 Werner Ladder Naismith Men's Coach of the Year Late Season Watch List. (SMC Athletics, 2023)
Last season ended in heartbreak, after Saint Mary’s lost to the UCLA Bruins in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. The Gaels may be able to claim a higher seed in the tournament with a strong showing in Las Vegas.
Regardless, it has been nothing short of a special season for the Gaels. Let’s see if this team can keep fighting and continue to make Moraga proud in the weeks ahead.
Madison Sciba '24,