MORAGA, Calif. -- The mega-sized personality and production that characterized the Omar Samhan era at Saint Mary’s is over, and how the Gaels expect to fill the power vacuum created by the big man’s departure can best be summed up by his old point guard.
“Guys find their spots,” senior Mickey McConnell said.
McConnell meant that in the technical sense, describing how Clint Steindl managed to get open and carve up St. John’s with a career-high 22 points on seven 3-pointers in a 76-71 win at McKeon Pavilion. As a team, the ragtag Gaels will each have to find ways to do his part in a program that no longer necessarily has a go-to guy.
Beating an emerging Big East team at home behind contributions from numerous Gaels -- including McConnell’s 10 points and Matthew Dellavedova’s 15 points and nine assists -- was an important early-season achievement coming off a Sweet 16 appearance.
The margin for error, after all, is slim in the West Coast Conference without nonconference wins like this one to boost the résumé. Failing to go through Gonzaga and capture an automatic bid results in an uncomfortable wait and often heartbreak, as the Gaels know full well.
“This is one of those wins,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Those guys [at St. John’s] will have a good RPI. At the end of the year, we should have a notable win.”
On a night when Steve Lavin made his long-awaited return to coaching and had his parents in the stands to see it, Steindl stole the show.
The gangly 6-foot-7 Australian sank five back-breaking 3-pointers in the second half. After the game, he spoke of needing to step up as a scorer on this team and all the while experiencing what it’s like to be in the zone.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Steindl said. The basket feels like it’s three times the size it actually is. You get pumped up. This home crowd we use to our advantage.”
In the absence of Samhan, Steindl whipped the crowd into a frenzy and started in the frontcourt alongside transfers Rob Jones (seven points, five rebounds) and Kenton Walker II (six points, six rebounds, four blocks). Tim Williams, who played very little last season while backing up Samhan, chipped in eight points and eight rebounds.
Those performances were welcomed by Bennett, given that Dellavedova has been coming off the bench while working his way back from a hamstring injury, and fellow guard Jorden Page did not play because of a bruised knee.
The performances also came against a St. John's team with 10 seniors on the roster and one uber-talented freshman. Dwayne Polee II had quite a college debut, scoring 16 points and finishing on a breakaway in such incredible fashion that Bennett mused that it appeared as if he had dunked it from the lights at the roof of the building.
“My individual effort doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get the win,” Polee said.
“They’re a great shooting team. We allowed them too many open looks.”
Still, Polee represents a bright future for Lavin and the tip of the iceberg when it comes to incoming recruits. He got the Red Storm off to a good start and a 31-28 lead at halftime.
When St. John’s allowed the first five minutes of the second half to go by without scoring, Steindl’s back-to-back 3-pointers gave Saint Mary’s the lead. Dellavedova ultimately finished off St. John’s by calmly making his free throws down the stretch.
It was a workmanlike performance for Saint Mary’s and one that St. John's could learn from.
“They battled to the end,” Lavin said of his players. “We just got to improve our offensive execution. It’ll all get better.”