SALT LAKE CITY — No. 7 Saint Mary’s led No. 10 VCU comfortably at halftime after shooting a robust 64 percent from the floor in the first half, but as the second half wore on, that lead evaporated Thursday evening in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
The Gaels led by 46-31 at halftime but were suddenly up just two points after the Rams used an 18-4 run midway through the second half to get back into the game.
“They were hard to put away — we couldn’t put them away,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett after the game.
With relentless pressure on them from the Rams, however, Bennett didn’t need to say anything to inspire his team. Instead, he relied on his team’s experience and it paid off.
“Our guys — we have good leadership, our guards have great composure,” Bennett said. “Calvin (Hermanson) did a good job, Jock (Landale) made some plays there. There was nothing specific that was said, we just knew we had to take care of the ball and do a better job defensively.”
Saint Mary’s weathered the storm and held off the Rams to move onto the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010 and third time ever. Jock Landale led the way with 18 points and 13 rebounds, and four others scored in double figures for the Gaels.
However, the key to the game was not collapsing after VCU closed the Saint Mary’s lead to a 56-54 game.
The Gaels were then able to push the lead back up to 10 points after VCU’s run and had at least a two-possession lead the rest of the way after that. Saint Mary’s also controlled their turnovers in the final stretch of the game committing just one in the final 11 minutes after 14 prior to that. The Gaels entered the tournament 17th in the country, averaging just 10.5 turnovers per game.
“We just got tougher, tighter together,” Hermanson said. “We play so well together and it's another example of under pressure we just got tight and make sure we take care of the ball.”
Saint Mary’s guard Joe Rahon said the team had prepared for VCU’s full-court press in practice and said previous experience this year helped in dealing with the pressure.
“That kind of helped us through it,” he said. “We've been through situations like this before. It was like earlier in the year when we were at Dayton, the same thing happened and we learned from that.”
Saint Mary’s win wasn’t just its first tournament win in seven years, it’s also the second win of the day for the West Coast Conference. No. 1 Gonzaga overcame a slow start earlier in the day. The Zags will play No. 8 Northwestern Saturday and Saint Mary’s will play the winner between No. 2 Arizona and No. 15 North Dakota.
“We'll go watch see who wins this game, most likely Arizona, and as soon as we find out we'll start preparing for them,” Bennett said.
A win Saturday would catapult the Gaels into their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2010 as well. The program hasn’t moved past that since 1959, when it made it to the Elite Eight.