After being snubbed last year by the NCAA selection committee, the St. Mary’s Gaels secured themselves an automatic bid to the 2019 March Madness tournament by upsetting the #1 team in the country with a 60-47 victory over Gonzaga (30-3) in the WCC Tournament Championship.
St. Mary’s (22-11) found themselves on the bubble once again. Projections did not look good for the second-best team in the West Coast Conference. Head coach Randy Bennett knew St. Mary’s had to defeat the best team in the country in order to earn an automatic bid.
St. Mary’s basketball officials did not want their fate determined by the NCAA again this year. They punched a ticket to the Big Dance the old-fashioned way by running the table in the WCC conference tournament.
“The way we did it, from where we were at the beginning of the year until now, I get a lot of satisfaction out of that,” said Bennett.
In 2010, Bennett guided St. Mary’s (with a #10 seed) to a Sweet 16 berth. In 2013, St. Mary’s won the play-in game against Middle Tennessee to secure a #11 seed. In 2017, the Gaels picked off VCU in the opening round, but lost in #2 Arizona in the Round of 32.
In 17 seasons with St. Mary’s, Bennett is 414-173. He wins 70 percent of his overall games with a 71 percent clip in the WCC. St. Mary’s locked up their seventh trip to March Madness since 2005 under Bennett.
Play Better Schools
St. Mary’s won 30 games last season, which did not impress the selection committee. When the Gaels were snubbed last year, NCAA officials told the St. Mary’s basketball team they needed to play better competition. St. Mary’s scheduled a few tougher foes.
St. Mary’s started the season 3-4 and suffered early losses against #15 Mississippi State, Utah State, and Harvard. Since then, St Mary’s went 19-7.
Along the way, St Mary’s lost to LSU when the Tigers were unranked, but they are in the Top 10 now. Prior to the WCC title game, St. Mary’s went 0-3 against ranked schools with two losses against Gonzaga. Although the schedule improved overall, St. Mary’s was at the mercy of the NCAA with a 21-11 record.
St. Mary’s basketball team took the mission into their own hands. The Gaels had a unified goal: beat #1 Gonzaga in Vegas.
Gonzaga finished the regular season with an undefeated 16-0 record in the WCC. The defeated St. Mary’s by a combined 62 points in two games. The two would meet again at the WCC Championship in Las Vegas.
Revenge of the 48-Point Blowout
On a chilly February in Spokane, Washington the Gonzaga Bulldogs obliterated the Gaels. St. Mary’s basketball suffered one of its worst losses in school history with a 94-46 defeat. The Zags were up 33 points and halftime and continued to outscore the Gaels in the second half. Junior forward Brandon Clarke led all scorers with 24 points. Five players scored in double figures, including Rui Hachimaura. The Zags best player dropped 18 points on an efficient 8-for-11 shooting.
St. Mary’s shot 25.9 from the floor, including an anemic 1-for-13 from three-point range. They finished with a 7.7 percent clip from downtown. Jordan Ford, 6-foot-1 junior guard, leads the Gaels in scoring with 21.3 points per game. Gonzaga held him to 8 points in the first game.
In a rematch last week, the Gaels played much better but still lost by 14 points. The Zags pulled away in the second half. Despite shooting a poor 14.3 percent from long range, the Zags pulled off a win with Hachimaura and Clarke combining for 32 points and 15 rebounds. Jordan Ford put up 19 points in a losing effort for the Gaels.
Punching Their Own Ticket
With a bid to March Madness on the line, St. Mary’s pulled off a miraculous upset. The Zags were 14-point favorites in the WCC title game. St. Mary’s won 60-47 for a 27-point swing.
“We were told to pull off a miracle by people who don’t know us,” said Jordan Hunter from St. Mary’s. “We didn’t need a miracle. We knew we could beat them.”
Jordan Ford shrugged off an off-shooting night but scored a couple of key baskets down the stretch. Ford finished with 17 points with a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line. Jordan Hunter scored 12 points and pulled down 15 rebounds in the victory.
St. Mary’s defense did an excellent job clamping down on defense. They held the Zags to only 47 points, which is remarkable considering the Gonzaga averages 88.8 points per game. They also shut down the perimeter game allowing only 2 successful treys in 17 attempts.
Gonzaga shot only 37.5 percent overall and 11.8 percent from downtown. Guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell combined for 5-for-25 shooting including 0-for-9 from beyond the arc. Clarke led the team in scoring with 16 points, but Hachimaura had a quiet game with only 9 points.
Even with the loss, Gonzaga with 30 wins is expected to still hold down the #1 seed in the West. The Zags only other losses were back-to-back mishaps in mid-December against #7 Tennessee and #12 North Carolina. At the start of the season, Gonzaga picked off #1 Duke in Hawaii during the annual Maui Classic.