SAN FRANCISCO -- It’s supposed to be smooth sailing all the way to the West Coast Conference title for Saint Mary’s, right?
After easily beating second-place San Francisco 86-68 on Saturday, the Gaels are now only one win away from capturing at least a share of the title. To cut down the nets and grab the championship outright would be a first for Saint Mary's since it won the league back in 1989. And with a 2 ½ game lead, the Gaels don’t even have to beat Gonzaga for a second time this season to do it.
Yet, despite last year's Sweet 16 trip, this is a program that knows an at-large bid is no absolute certainty. So SMC simply looks to the next game.
“We know nothing’s guaranteed,” Saint Mary’s point guard Mickey McConnell said. “In our position, we can’t take anything for granted.”
The 22-4 Gaels learned that lesson two weeks ago when two days after McConnell hit the game-winning leaner to beat Gonzaga on the road, they suffered a buzzkill, 15-point loss at Portland.
Saint Mary’s has won four in a row since then, but was reminded of how fragile its season could be.
“You have to keep improving in February, and I feel in the past week and a half we did that,” coach Randy Bennett said.
Against San Francisco, the Gaels came out in the second half and didn't mess around. After leading by two points at halftime, defensive adjustments led to a 14-2 run to start the second half. McConnell finished with 19 points and eight assists, Matthew Dellavedova had 14 points and seven rebounds, and Rob Jones added 18 points. They shot 54.9 percent from the field and stifled the Dons' attack.
Rex Walters, who has led a resurgence in San Francisco during his third season as coach, knew full well what handing the Gaels a loss would do. The Dons might have been second in the conference having beaten Gonzaga at home, but they’re now only 13-12 overall.
“If we win this game, we can hurt our league,” Walters said. “There are no guarantees for a mid-major. If someone gets them, they’ll be right back on the bubble.”
So forgive the Gaels if after game-sealing dunks from Jones and Stephen Holt, they weren’t quite ready to declare themselves the champs.
There’s a BracketBusters game against Utah State next Saturday that could earn Saint Mary’s another win on its tournament résumé. And after that comes opportunities to take the title at home against a revenge-minded Gonzaga team and a rematch with Portland.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Bennett said. “They’re all hard to get.”
Walters gave much of the credit to McConnell, who he called “an absolute coach on the floor.” But off of it, the senior wouldn’t stray from the team’s talking point.
“We try not to think about it,” McConnell said of the WCC title. “If we do it, we do it.”
The Gaels would rather focus their energies on the bigger picture and peaking for the NCAA tournament. That requires taking care of business with the rest of their conference games.
But a title along the way would be nice, too.