St. Mary’s (27-6) extended their season with a convincing victory over Washington State (17-16) in an NIT opening round game, 68-57.
Playing in front of their loyal fans at home, Coach Randy Bennett’s Gaels came out firing from the opening tap, which they won as well.
The Gaels never trailed in this game, looking to prove the NCAA committee wrong for leaving them out of the 64 team field.
With this victory, St. Mary’s can easily set aside being snubbed and focus on earning the right to hang an NIT banner from the rafters of their gym.
Patrick Mills was brilliant for St. Mary's, showing no signs of the broken hand injury he sustained a few weeks back. Mills was too quick for any of the WSU players trying to guard him. He finished with a game high 27 points on 8-15 shooting.
Coach Tony Bennett watched another miserable performance by his team on offense. Instead of running their offense, WSU found themselves running down Gaels players following an unbelievable 12 turnovers in the first half.
Half of St. Mary’s first points, 18 of 36, came off Cougar turnovers.
Coach Tony Bennett constantly reminds his players of how precious every offensive possession is when playing Bennett Ball. On this night, his Cougs threw the game away by turning the ball over a dozen times.
Washington State was led by another outstanding effort and performance from senior Aron Baynes with a final double-double in his last game for the Crimson and Gray. He scored a team high 19 points even though he was double-teamed every time the ball went inside to him. Add to his scoring, 10 rebounds a steal and a couple of blocked shots. Baynes finished his college career with one of his best overall games.
The two St. Mary’s players responsible for shutting down Baynes enjoyed solid games themselves. Omar Samhan matched WSU’s big Aussie blow for blow while chipping in 11 points. An athletic, mature Diamon Simpson was a force along the baseline. His defense smothered the various Cougs playing forward and was steady on offense contributing 18 points.
WSU made a couple of nice runs at St. Mary’s in the second half but couldn’t come back from their first half deficit.
They closed the gap to just eight points, 45-37, and had the Gaels big man, Samhan in foul trouble with three fouls. At that point in the game the Cougs needed someone to get a hot hand.
NBA-bound Mills was not going to let the game get away from his teammates. As the saying goes, “Not in our house.”
Mills attacked the basket for a layup, then moments later put up one of his high-arching three-point shots that was perfect.
There was still fight left in the Cougars.
Two minutes later Washington State hustled their way back to within four, 57-53. It appeared they had the momentum when St. Mary’s couldn’t get the ball in play after a television time out, forcing them to burn one of their own.
Momentum proved to be fickle in front of a national television audience.
Managing just four points over the final six and half minutes of regulation, Coach Bennett’s team found themselves on the short end of the score.
Freshman Marcus Capers played well for WSU in the second half. He was responsible for trying to cover Mills, a job that will challenge some of the best defenders in the NBA next season. Capers showed confidence knocking down three nice jumpers. Cougar Nation can expect to see a lot of that next season.
Taylor Rochestie finished up the game with 14 points but never found his touch from behind the arc. He had some good looks at the basket yet managed to shoot 1-7 from three-point range. Though Rochestie’s play was forgettable on this night, his leadership both on and off the court will long be remembered.
St. Mary’s might be a small school compared to Washington State. Moraga certainly is a small town by California standards. But on a St. Patrick’s Day evening in McKeon Pavilion, Coach Randy Bennett’s Gaels played some big time college basketball.
Originally published on Examiner.com