They will still have work to do in the Round of 64, but the Saint Mary’s Gaels are the second winner of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Saint Mary’s defeated the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, 67-54, on Tuesday in Dayton to earn the No. 11 seed in the Midwest region.
Star guard Matthew Dellavedova was once again nothing short of brilliant for the Gaels with 22 points and six rebounds. He knocked down five three-pointers on seven attempts en route to leading all scorers.
Backcourt mate Stephen Holt scored 18 points for the Gaels, while Marcos Knight led the way with 16 for Middle Tennessee.
Saint Mary’s will face off against the Memphis Tigers on Thursday in its second game of the Big Dance.
Though they were ultimately victorious, things did not start out perfectly for the Gaels.
Much of the game's opening minutes played right into Middle Tennessee's hands. Playing their trademark defense that emphasizes pressure on the ball and fast hands, the Blue Raiders were able to fluster Saint Mary's into bad shots and some quick turnovers.
The Gaels did not score in the game's first two minutes, only getting on the board once Dellavedova got hot. He put up eight points in less than a two-minute span to give his side its first lead of the game early on.
Whenever Dellavedova wasn't leading the offensive charge, Saint Mary's could not find any offensive explosion. The team went more than five minutes without making a field goal, from Beau Levesque's three-pointer with 13:55 remaining to Stephen Holt's splash from deep with 8:08 left on the first-half clock.
While it seemed like Middle Tennessee was controlling the game's pace, it could not control the scoreboard. The Blue Raiders were unable to take advantage of their counterpart's mistakes due to their own offensive deficiencies. They only stretched their lead as high as two points before Saint Mary's took an 18-16 advantage following Holt's shot.
Much of that had to do with Knight's absence due to foul trouble. Middle Tennessee's leading scorer picked up two fouls in the game's first six minutes, then spent much of the remaining first-half minutes planted on the bench.
As a result, the Gaels continued their strong run and went into the halftime break ahead 29-20. Dellavedova led the way with 12 points and Holt had chipped in seven.
Following the break, though, Middle Tennessee set out to frustrate Dellavedova and Saint Mary's with relentless pressure. Employing a 1-3-1 full-court zone pressure defense, the Blue Raiders planned to overcome their individual talent disadvantage by trapping and flustering Saint Mary's the whole way down the floor.
It did not work. Well-prepared for the kitchen-sink defensive approach, the Gaels broke the press nearly every time down the floor using smart passes and cuts. The result was a contest where Saint Mary’s turned the ball over only seven times, down from the 15.9 per game Middle Tennessee forced during the season.
The infusion of Knight into the Blue Raiders offense helped, as they went on scoring spurts to bring the game within one possession multiple times. But Saint Mary’s never gave up the lead, always getting a critical bucket whenever Middle Tennessee got too close.
By the end of the contest, Saint Mary’s was working the Middle Tennessee press like clockwork to get layups and wide-open three-pointers. With another athletic team in Memphis on tap for their second game, the Gaels will undoubtedly try to use a similar blueprint on Thursday.
Either way, Saint Mary’s will walk away from the NCAA tournament as a winner—an accomplishment precious few teams feel.
Though Middle Tennessee's defense has flustered many an opponent this season, Eamonn Brennan of ESPN noted how calm Saint Mary's looked breaking the 1-3-1 press:
Eamonn Brennan @eamonnbrennan
Middle has been in their trapping 1-3-1 half court zone thing since the half, and Saint Mary’s hasn’t batted an eye.2013-3-20 02:40:18
Andy Glockner @AndyGlockner
MTSU is having problems against a top-100 team. Fancy that. :)2013-3-20 02:14:16
Though Dellavedova likely gained a bunch of fans nationally following his great performance, Dan Monson of the Des Moines Register isn't one of them:
ESPN's Amin Elhassan was a fan, and noted that a certain player on the Miami Heat should take notice of Dellavedova's excellent evening:
Chillin in my Bacta @AminESPN
Matthew Dellavedova is the type of player that should compel Mario Chalmers to go work on his shot right now.2013-3-20 03:10:22
Also impressed was ESPN's Twitter account, which sent out some advice for Memphis:
The Memphis Tigers scouting report for Thursday is pretty clear: Don’t let Matthew Dellavedova shoot. Ever. #HeIsAutomatic2013-3-20 03:28:41
With only two days to prepare, stopping the Gaels and their star will be easier said than done.