No. 16 Saint Mary’s plays Pepperdine in WCC title quest

It’s time to get serious for Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels are in familiar territory as they prepare for their first taste of the 2018 West Coast Conference Tournament. After dominating most of the regular season, the Gaels once again find themselves playing second fiddle to Gonzaga, the regular-season WCC champs.

On Saturday, No. 16 Saint Mary’s can take its first step toward wresting away the tournament title that the Zags have won 17 of 19 years when the second-seeded Gaels face Pepperdine. A win against Pepperdine would most certainly lock up an NCAA Tournament at-large bid at the worst.

The 10th-seeded Waves upset seventh-seeded Santa Clara 85-69 on Friday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas in a first-round WCC tournament game.

Trae Berhow scored 23 points, Kameron Edwards had 21 and Colbey Ross added 13 as the Waves (6-25) have a two-game winning streak.

Even though Saint Mary’s (27-4) beat Pepperdine by a combined 38 points in their two meetings this season, there’s reason for the Gaels to be cautious.

Despite their unimpressive record, head coach Marty Wilson and the Waves came into Friday’s game loose and confident. Since Feb. 1, Pepperdine suffered a handful of heartbreaking defeats, including two losses in overtime to Portland and BYU, a two-point loss to San Diego and another defeat to No. 6 Gonzaga when they trailed by only two in the waning minutes of the game.

Wilson knows what his team is facing in the Gaels.

“They’re probably as good as anyone in the country at making you pay on ball screens,” Wilson told Friday night. “They have a great point guard. They have a great big man. If you fall asleep or aren’t concentrating, they’re going to pick you apart.”

That’s exactly what the Waves and Berhow did to Santa Clara.

The freshman guard from Minnesota led an attack that saw Pepperdine connect on 70.8 percent of its field-goal attempts. Berhow made 5 of 6 from 3-point range. His fifth 3 gave the Waves a 46-26 second-half lead and ensured Wilson would prowl the sidelines at least for one more game.

The Waves held Santa Clara to 41.9 percent from the field and only 6 of 27 from 3-point range.

Berhow told reporters he was playing for his coach, who was told early in February that his seventh season would be his last with the Waves.

“We’ve never talked about that,” Wilson said. “We talk about them playing for the team. It’s not for me.”

Saint Mary’s has a plethora of weapons and the team is led by Conference Player of the Year Jock Landale, who recorded 32 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting between the two teams this season.

Jordan Ford got in a rhythm and had 20 points the first time out and 18 in the second game against the Waves. Emmett Naar, the school’s all-time assist leader, had 20 assists in the two games, playing in limited time because of a sprained ankle.

“I came out and hit my first couple shots and from there it just kept rolling, so it felt pretty good,” Ford said after the Gaels beat the Waves by 14 on Feb. 22. “I put myself in the right position, and since guys hustled back on defense I was able to steal rebounds from the big guys.”

One thing the Gaels learned from losing to San Francisco is they can’t underestimate anyone, even a team that has won only six games.

“We are moving on right now, trying to get better, taking it one game at a time,” forward Calvin Hermanson told reporters.

The Waves on Friday epitomized moving on as they carried over some momentum from defeating Portland on Feb. 24, their first win in a month.

“The guys played great,” Wilson said after that win. “(We) dominated from the start. This game proved that a season record doesn’t always tell the full story of a team’s character, hustle and heart.”