No. 12 Saint Mary’s bounces back from loss to beat UC Irvine

UC Irvine's Brandon Smith, right, fouls Saint Mary's Dane Pineau during the first half of an NCAA basketball game in Moraga, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

MORAGA, Calif. (AP) Saint Mary’s got a big lift from backup center Jordan Hunter when he hit a 3-point shot from midcourt just before halftime.

Jock Landale, who starts ahead of Hunter, added his own signature moment early in the second half with a midcourt steal and a soaring dunk that helped get the 12th-ranked Gaels back on track after suffering their first loss of the season.

Landale had 15 points and seven rebounds, Evan Fitzner added a season-high 12 points and No. 12 Saint Mary’s bounced back from its first loss of the season to beat UC Irvine 84-53 on Sunday night.

Hunter’s 3-pointer was the first of his college career.

”That was pretty awesome,” Fitzner said. ”That was big-time. It’s a big play because going into the second half you kind of feel that momentum.”

Hunter rarely plays and was on the court fewer than 60 seconds when he made the halfcourt heave.”I practice that all the time so it was just second nature when I let it go,” Hunter said with a laugh. ”The ball came my way, I jumped in front of Dane (Pineau) and I just let it fly.”

Saint Mary’s (7-1) was crisp offensively most of the game and shot 56.3 percent from the floor, a vast improvement from two nights earlier when the Gaels went 16 of 51 in a 65-51 loss to Texas-Arlington.

Landale, the leading scorer for Randy Bennett’s team, bounced back from one of his worst games of the season to pace Saint Mary’s. Landale had seven points as part of a game-opening 12-3 run, then scored on an emphatic dunk early in the second half.

”We struggled the other night so it’s always good to get one back,” Fitzner said. ”We didn’t really have as good as energy as we had tonight. It always helps when you’re making shots. Our guards did a good job of giving us open looks tonight.”

Jordan Ford scored 12 points and Emmett Naar added 10 to help the Gaels win won their third straight over the Anteaters.

Eyassu Workue scored 14 points and Tommy Rutherford had 11 for UC Irvine. The Anteaters (5-6) have lost four of six.

The Gaels never trailed and won for the fifth time in six home games this season.

Two days after looking sluggish and out of sync in the loss to Texas-Arlington, Saint Mary’s shot well but couldn’t shake Irvine until going on runs of 9-2 and 8-3 late in the first half.

Fitzner scored seven points over the final 6:05 and Jordan Hunter added a buzzer-beating 3-point heave from midcourt to put Saint Mary’s up 38-25 after the Anteaters had trouble inbounding the ball. Hunter, a 6-foot-10-inch backup center, had not attempted a 3-pointer in 30 previous games with the Gaels.

Bennett called it the play of the night.

”It changed that game,” Bennett said. ”Going in up 13, it’s a difference. It really is. It helped us and then we came out in the second half and you could kind of feel the momentum.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Beating an overmatched Irvine team helps the record but won’t make voters forget what happened earlier in the week. The Gaels will drop from No. 12 based on their loss to Texas-Arlington and could wind up falling out of the Top 25 altogether.

BIG PICTURE

UC Irvine: The Anteaters showed some spark early but eventually faded. It’s a matter of consistency. Too many times Irvine’s players stood around rather than moving without the ball. Their usual strong defense also allowed the Gaels to shoot 64 percent in the second half.

Saint Mary’s: It might not be enough to keep the Gaels from dropping out of the rankings, but they needed to have a feel-good moment and they got it against Irvine. Getting Landale back on track is a good sign.

UP NEXT

UC Irvine: The Anteaters continue their five-game trip against Nevada on Wednesday night.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels don’t leave McKeon Pavilion until conference play begins. They will host Western Kentucky on Wednesday night.