No. 22 St. Mary’s has eyes on NCAA prize

Although Saint Mary’s chance of sharing the West Coast Conference regular-season title for the second consecutive season virtually vanished when it lost to Gonzaga on Saturday, the Gaels still have a major goal that is achievable.

That goal is to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, and that will be the motivation when the Gaels host Loyola Marymount (12-13, 5-9 WCC) on Thursday at McKeon Pavilion.

You might think that with a No. 22 ranking and two of its three losses to No. 1 Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s (22-3, 12-2) would be practically assured of the NCAA Tournament berth. But Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett speaks from experience when he notes that nothing is certain.

“It all depends how we finish,” he said after the 74-64 loss to Gonzaga. “We have two weeks of games, four regular-season games and then the conference tournament. There’s a body of work there. It sounds crazy, but it’s too early to tell. It’s such a fine line at this level. We were at 27-4 last year and lost in the conference championship.”

The Gaels were indeed 27-4 heading into the championship game of the WCC tournament against Gonzaga last season. Bennett also noted that the Gaels were ranked at the time (in the coaches poll, not in the Associated Press poll).

But Saint Mary’s, which tied Gonzaga for the regular-season title last season, lost that tournament championship game to Gonzaga, and was not invited to the NCAA tournament.

“I learned my lesson on that one,” Bennett said.

Saint Mary’s would seem to be in better shape for an NCAA bid this season. The Gaels own a road win over Dayton and have an RPI ranking of 20 as of Wednesday morning. However, they had a decent RPI of 37 on Selection Sunday last season and wound up in the NIT.

It means Saint Mary’s cannot have a misstep against a team like Loyola Marymount, especially with a challenging road game against BYU looming on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s has defeated Loyola Marymount 10 consecutive times and 21 times in the past 22 meetings. The Gaels struggled to beat the Lions in Los Angeles back on Dec. 29, leading by just a point with 11 minutes left before stretching it out for a 72-60 victory.

The Lions have an RPI ranking of 170, but they are coming off a 66-60 home victory over Portland, forcing the Pilots into 30 turnovers in the process.

“That was our best defense effort this year, by far,” said Loyola Marymount coach Mike Dunlap said.. “You are not going to see too many games where you force a team into 30 turnovers. I was very proud of our defense effort from the entire roster. Everyone contributed today.”

The Lions were far from perfect offensively, shooting just 37.9 percent and committing 21 turnovers

“It wasn’t a pretty game from an offensive standpoint, but it was good enough to get the win,” Dunlap said. “We had everyone contribute to the win and this is the style of play we want to bring to LMU. Lots of running and tough defense.”

Brandon Brown, who leads the Lions in scoring at 13.3 points per game, and Buay Tuach, who averages 12.1 points, scored 18 points apiece against Portland.

Two day earlier, Loyola Marymount had been crushed by Gonzaga, which took a 22-point lead at halftime on its way to a 90-60 victory.

“They make you pay for the mistakes,” Dunlap said. “They are a very good running team and that is where a lot of our fouls came from.”

No one knows that better than Saint Mary’s what can happen against Gonzaga. The Gaels shot just 37.9 percent in the second half against the Bulldogs after shooting a season-low 30.6 percent in a 51-41 victory over Portland two days earlier.

Jock Landale, who leads the Gaels in scoring at 17.0 points per game, had 24 points against Gonzaga, but he was the only Saint Mary’s player to reach double figures. Calvin Hermanson, second on the team in scoring at 12.6 points, and Emmett Naar, who is third at 9.9, combined for just 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting as the Bulldogs dominated the paint.

“We can beat this team, but we can’t have a B game or a C game,” Bennett said. “They have a lot to do with the kind of game you have, but we’re going to have to have an A game. Hopefully we’ll get another chance at it. We’ll have to do better job on them inside than we did tonight.”