Saint Mary's makes a statement against UNI

MORAGA, Calif. -- Tradition has it that Saint Mary’s sweats it out on Selection Sunday. Two seasons ago, it took the drama out of it by winning the West Coast Conference tournament, and the Gaels made it all the way to the Sweet 16. Last season, despite racking up 25 wins and a share of the WCC regular-season title with Gonzaga, the Gaels got snubbed.

So before Saint Mary’s faced its first difficult test of the season, against Northern Iowa, and came through with a convincing 57-41 win at McKeon Pavilion, Gaels coach Randy Bennett reminded his squad that games in early November can have significant meaning.

“It’s one of those résumé-building wins come March,” Saint Mary’s guard Stephen Holt said, noting that the sting from being bypassed remains on the Gaels’ minds. “Coach hit on it in the locker room. It’s important to use that as motivation.”

Saint Mary’s responded by holding Northern Iowa to 13 first-half points and a 27 percent field goal percentage for the game. Top Panthers scorer Anthony James was limited to two points on 1-for-15 shooting.

The offensive woes Northern Iowa faced stunned a team that was coming off a 17-point road win against Old Dominion but didn’t necessarily surprise coach Ben Jacobson, given the quality of opponent the Panthers were facing.

“Saint Mary’s is very good defensively,” Jacobson said. “They’re physical and had a good plan. They made things harder for us.”

At one point, the Gaels led by 28 points after hitting five 3-pointers during a game-deciding 17-2 run in the second half. Matthew Dellavedova, who has taken over ball-handling duties after the team lost WCC player of the year Mickey McConnell, appeared very comfortable while scoring 11 points and dishing out seven assists. Holt, a sophomore who joins Dellavedova in the backcourt, came away with 10 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Forward Rob Jones added 10 points and 10 rebounds while providing a strong defensive presence.

“We were ready because we knew this was a good team -- one of the best mid-major programs in the country,” Bennett said. “You need to get these. We only get so many cracks at teams like that.”

Saint Mary’s has a possible home game against Big Sky preseason favorite Weber State, a trip to Las Vegas to take on Baylor and Missouri State, and a BracketBusters game in February as its opportunities to state its case for an at-large bid come March.

So while the limited offensive production might have put television viewers to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, Bennett could only smile at the sight of the scoreboard at halftime and go to bed satisfied that the Gaels managed to take down a team expected to contend for the Missouri Valley Conference title.

Even at this stage of the season, they weren’t shy about recognizing the win’s importance.

“It’s pretty big,” Holt said.