Takeaways from the Gaels’ impressive season-opening victory in front of a pumped-up home crowd.
(Tod Fierner, @saintmaryshoops and @smcgaels)
By Ryan Ford
For the ninth time in the past 10 seasons, Saint Mary’s won their season-opener. Matched up against Oral Roberts, the Gaels started hot and held on to beat the Golden Eagles, 78-70.
Opening their current campaign at home in the UCU Pavillion, Saint Mary’s extended a historic winning-streak following their undefeated record at home last season, having now tied the school-record for consecutive home victories with a staggering 19 wins in a row.
Expectations are high for the Gaels following a successful showing in last year's NCAA Tournament. With both familiar faces and new talent lacing it up for this season’s squad, here are some of the main takeaways following game one of the 2022-23 season.
Mahaney Lights it Up in NCAA Debut
Graduating and starring for neighboring high school Campolindo’s basketball team, Aidan Mahaney certainly had a lot of hype coming into this season.
A four-star recruit, Mahaney was the driving force behind a basketball program at Campolindo High School that went 28-2 his senior year, averaging 17.2 points per game while knocking down 38% of his attempts beyond the arc.
If Monday night’s game was any indication, Mahaney is on his way to becoming one of the driving forces for the Gaels as well.
Mahaney (pictured above, #20) scored a game-high 25 points in his Saint Mary’s debut, going 5/12 on three-pointers in only 26 minutes of game action. Clearly feeling it from the get-go, Mahaney outscored the entire Oral Roberts bench and provided a spark with poise uncommon for a freshman.
The veteran-filled starting lineup for Head Coach Randy Bennett likely won’t be changing anytime soon, but performances like the one last night from Mahaney will certainly make it harder for Bennett to not give the dynamic freshman more and more playing time as the season goes on.
Mitchell Saxen Looks the Part of Gaels’ Next Dominant Big Man
Entering his junior year, Mitchell Saxen had been firmly entrenched in back-up center minutes behind starter Matthias Tass. But Saxen showed the talent that made him a three-star recruit and the fifth-ranked center in the state of Washington when he locked up Gonzaga standout Chet Holmgren (eventual top-five pick in 2022 NBA Draft) in the home finale last season.
With Tass gone and no one standing in his way for playing time, how would Saxen play as a starter and focal point in the paint offensively?
Against Oral Roberts and their massive 7 '5 starting center Connor Vanover, Saxen filled up the stat sheet. Tied for second on the team with 32 minutes played, Saxen led all starters with 16 points while chipping in eight rebounds, but also showed his versatility by dishing out five assists and notching three steals in the contest as well.
Randy Bennett’s offense is historically at its best when led by a dominant big man in the middle, from stars-of-the-past Omar Samhan and Jock Landale to Tass last season. There is no question that senior Logan Johnson has shown the talent to keep up with the best guards in the WCC, but if Saxen can keep up this level of play offensively from the center position, the junior out of Seattle will make the Gaels that much harder to prepare for.
UCU Pavilion: Best Home Court Advantage in the WCC?
With Monday’s victory, the Gaels tied a school-record with their 19th consecutive home victory. The Gaels from 2009-2011 had also won 19 in a row at the then-named McKeon Pavilion, but numbers argue that this streak is already more impressive.
During this streak, beginning at the tail end of the 2020-21 campaign, Saint Mary’s has gone 19-0 at UCU Pavilion with an average margin of victory against non-conference opponents an unreal 29.2 points, and an impressive 12.1 against WCC foes. Number 18 was certainly the most impressive, when the Gaels upset number-one ranked Gonzaga by 10 points in a game they never trailed.
The Gaels were able to keep the magic going against Oral Roberts, racing out to an 18-point lead at half and holding on for the eight-point victory to tie the 2009-2011 squad's school-record.
“Really helped us, a lot of our guys were excited to play,” said Head Coach Randy Bennett after the game when asked about the home atmosphere. “Kinda picked up where we left off last year, we finished with some really good crowds. I was pleasantly surprised to see all the students and season ticket holders, it was a good crowd. It helped us win the game.”
That 2009-2011 team, led by legends Matthew Dellavedova, Omar Samhan, and current Saint Mary’s Associate Head Coach Mickey McConnell, went on to make the Sweet 16 in the midst of that run. This team has a chance to break that record Thursday night against Vermont, and etch their names in the school’s record books while making a statement to the rest of the WCC that their home court advantage is the best in the conference.
Madison Sciba '24,