Plenty at stake when Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara

No. 20 Saint Mary’s does not want to jeopardize its chances of getting an NCAA tournament berth, and Santa Clara wants to achieve its highest West Coast Conference finish in 10 years.

That is what is at stake when the Gaels host Santa Clara Saturday night in the final regular-season game for both teams.

Saint Mary’s (25-3, 15-2 WCC) will finish second in the conference no matter what happens Saturday. But a loss to the Broncos (16-14, 10-7) might make the Gaels a little nervous about their postseason status. With a current RPI ranking of 16, and no bad losses, Saint Mary’s would seem to be safely into the NCAA tournament regardless of the result Saturday and in next week’s WCC tournament in Las Vegas.

But the Gaels had a 26-5 record after losing to Gonzaga in the WCC finals last year, and wound up in the NIT. The difference is that this season Saint Mary’s has no losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top 40 and has two wins over teams in the RPI top 40 (Dayton and Nevada). Last season Saint Mary’s had no wins over a top-40 team and had two losses to a team (Pepperdine) ranked outside the RPI top 100.

Saint Mary’s doesn’t want to ruin its resume with a loss to Santa Clara, which has an RPI ranking of 147 as of Friday morning.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was miffed by the exclusion from the NCAA tournament last year, and is steering clear of predictions this time.

“Our team will be motivated to play Saturday night,” Bennett said. “It is against Santa Clara, one of our rivals, and it is senior night. Our guys will be ready to play.”

The Gaels are coming off a solid performance in a 78-49 road victory over Pepperdine, as the Gaels shot 52.5 percent from the floor while limiting the Waves to 29.3 percent shooting. A 20-minute interruption in the second half because of a power outage did not bother the Gaels.

Just as important was the fact that Saint Mary’s leading scorer and rebounder, Jock Landale, bounced back for a poor game against BYU by scoring 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting while collecting 14 rebounds against Pepperdine.

“I thought we played really well tonight,” Bennett said after the game. “I thought Jock played well. We used our size advantage inside and our players did a good job finding him and giving him the ball.”

Landale had 20 points and 11 rebounds when Saint Mary’s beat Santa Clara 72-59 back on Jan. 28.

The Broncos have played well lately, winning three of their last four games, including a 69-68 victory over Pacific in their final home game on Thursday.

If Santa Clara beats Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga defeats BYU in Spokane, Wash., Saturday night, the Broncos would finish tied for third, which would be their best finish since 2006-07.

“What we have been able to do this season as a team has been awesome,” said Broncos forward Nate Kratch, who has averaged 20.0 points over the past four games and scored 18 points Thursday.

However, Broncos guard Jared Brownridge, who is the fourth-leading career scorer in WCC history, has hit a bit of slump recently. He still leads the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game, but totaled just 13 points in the past two games combined, making just 4 of 20 shots overall and 2 of 14 3-pointers in the process.

He fouled out with just five points on Thursday, but K.J. Feagin made up for it by scoring 22 points and hitting 6 of 7 shots from long range.

“I just thought I had to step up and fill that void while (Brownridge) was out,” Feagin said after the game. “It felt good to produce at the rate I did, and just get the W on senior night.

“This week in practice I’ve really been feeling good, just shooting the ball. And I had a great warmup today.”

The Broncos nearly let a 10-point lead with 6:38 left slip away, but they hung on for the win.

“Well, we made our free throws down the homestretch,” first-year Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek said.

It may take more than made free throws to knock off the Gaels on their home court, though.