Saint Mary’s earns No. 5 seed in NCAA Tournament


MORAGA — Their matching grey sneakers tapped on the floor, their knees bounced and their hands were restless as they waited in chairs on the floor of the University Credit Union Pavilion.

When the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed around 3:30 p.m. PT on Selection Sunday and the Saint Mary’s men’s basketball players finally heard their school’s name called, their anxiousness turned into excitement as they leaped into the air and into each others’ arms.

A No. 5 seed, the Gaels (26-7) will play in a Friday matchup in Albany, N.Y., against No. 12 seed Virginia Commonwealth University (27-7), the Atlantic 10 Conference champions who should be hungry to make a run after several positive COVID-19 tests ended their most recent appearance in the Big Dance before it started in 2021.

But the Gaels’ celebration of their No. 5 seed, tying last year’s team as the highest seeded in program history, lasted only a few seconds. An awkward moment put it on pause.

While a couple hundred fans high-fiving and holding their phones out and the Gaels’ mascot flexing his muscles, CBS analyst Seth Davis made a prediction that blasted over the stadium’s speaker system.

“VCU is going to beat Saint Mary’s,” Davis declared.

The stadium went silent for a moment. Then, a chorus of boos as the players looked at one another with a familiar grin.

Surprise wouldn’t be the right word. This was to be expected.

The Gaels were on a roll until just a couple weeks ago.

Since Feb. 25, they have played three games; one was a 76-69 win over Brigham Young University in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, and the two others were losses to Gonzaga. The first, a 77-68 defeat on the Bulldogs’ home court, was nothing to be too upset about.

But when both teams met for a rubber match in the WCC finals last Tuesday, Gonzaga overpowered SMC in a convincing 77-51 win to claim its fourth straight conference title.

A sample of the comments from head coach Randy Bennett after the game: “We were awful… We didn’t show up… We let (an early deficit) bother us.”

Sunday, Bennett said his guys were feeling better after two strong days of practice and the hope they’d improve their shot selection after an ugly affair that saw them shoot 33% from the field.

“We’ve been working on it,” he said. “We’ll get two more good ones this week.”

The Gaels will travel on Wednesday to Albany, where the winner of Friday’s game with VCU will play the winner of No. 4 University of Connecticut and No. 13 Iona University.

Bennett is banking on the experience most of his team picked up last year, when the No. 5-seeded Gaels beat No. 12 Indiana University, 82-53, in the opening round before getting stomped on by No. 4 UCLA, 72-56.

Now the Gaels “know what it’s like to fly to the East Coast and have to play,” Bennett said. “You know how to manage your schedule better… It helps. I’ve had teams that have done it, gone back to back. It definitely helps.”

The sting of the most recent Gonzaga loss felt like a “kick to the guts,” senior Kyle Bowen said.

And while a national pundit picking VCU in an upset seemed to suck the air out of the Gaels’ home court on Sunday, the players weren’t surprised to hear it.

“I heard it,” said senior Logan Johnson, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. “He’ll remember after the game what he said. We’ll leave it at that.”

If Saint Mary’s played its “gritty, not pretty” style of basketball with any success against Gonzaga on Tuesday, the momentum would surely be at their backs.

Instead, after a magical season in which they relied heavily on freshman Aidan Mahaney, the Campolindo product who joined Patty Mills as the only Saint Mary’s freshmen ever to make the All-WCC team, the Gaels’ blowout loss to Gonzaga has, for better or worse, turned them into underdogs.

“We love being doubted,” said Johnson, a finalist for the Lou Henson Award, presented annually to the top mid-major player in D-I college basketball. “We love being the odd-man out. A lot of people don’t think we’ll do anything. A lot of people didn’t think we’d be a No. 5 seed again and be in this position. So we’re just looking forward to proving a lot of people wrong.”


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