Within 30 minutes of his team’s worst performance in two years, Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was moving forward to something he hasn’t always been able to do.
He was looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament and what the Gaels must do to make sure they stick around for more than one game.
The Gaels were run out of Las Vegas by Gonzaga in Tuesday night’s West Coast Conference tournament championship game, losing 77-51 after trailing by as many as 37 points. Even so, they are certain to hear their name called on NCAA Selection Sunday, by virtue of not only a 26-7 record but also a still-sturdy No. 10 spot in the NET computer rankings.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s updated NCAA projections have the Gaels as a No. 6 seed — down just one spot after the lopsided defeat.
Just getting the program’s ninth NCAA bid since 2005 isn’t enough. Not for Bennett or this team, which won a share of the WCC regular-season title, beat Gonzaga in their first meeting this season and was top-seeded in Las Vegas.
“We have to get better,” Bennett said.
Beating Gonzaga in its 26th consecutive appearance in the WCC championship game was never going to be easy. But no one saw this coming.
“We didn’t play well and they did,” Bennett said. “We played 32 games and we played pretty well in 32 of them. In this one we were awful. They played well, we didn’t show up.
“For two years, we have not let anyone separate from us and tonight it happened. We got down 10 or 12 and we let it bother us.”
Senior forward Alex Ducas, named to the five-player all-tournament team, said there is no time for players to feel sorry for themselves.
“It’s not something we pictured coming into this game. We had a lot of confidence in our body of work coming into this. So yeah, it’s very disappointing,” he said. “We’ve got a couple days to get our minds right and remind ourselves who we are. It’s going to hurt for a little while but I think it’s important to get back to the drawing board.”
The Gaels, who make their living playing defense, allowed Gonzaga to shoot 58 percent. Saint Mary’s reached 33 percent only by hitting a handful of shots in garbage time. The best rebounding team in the conference lost the battle on the boards.
“We’ve got to get our bigs to play. They got taken to the woodshed up at Gonzaga last week and it happened again,” Bennett said, referring to the Gaels’ loss at Spokane in the regular-season finale. “They have to start competing better and playing smarter. We’ve got to play better as a team.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few suggested the Gaels ran into his team on the wrong night. “This one was as good as we’ve played all year,” he said.
Few also wouldn’t sell short the Gaels’ chances of making noise in the NCAA Tournament. “If you’ve not played Saint Mary’s before, they’re incredibly difficult to prepare for,” he said, citing their frustratingly slow pace of play and a defense that typically is physical and well-positioned.
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Gonzaga senior Julian Strawther agreed. “They make everything difficult,” he said. “Their attention to detail . . . they don’t make too many mistakes. For a team that’s never seen them or played against them, it’s hard. They stick together, they’re super-connected, they run everything with a lot of purpose.”
Referring to a potential Saint Mary’s opponent, Few said, “They’re going to feel OK and 30 minutes later they’re down eight (points) and Saint Mary’s has ‘em right where they want ‘em.”
“Down eight against Saint Mary’s,” Strawther chimed in, “is like down 20.”
Unfortunately for the Gaels, they could never put Gonzaga in that position on Tuesday night.
Ex-Bears chasing postseason
While Cal will miss the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year — the program’s longest drought since the 1980s — three former Golden Bears either already are headed to the NCAAs or are positioned to perhaps do so.
— Connor Vanover, Oral Roberts: The 7-foot-5 senior center, who transferred to Arkansas after one season at Cal, then moved on to Oral Roberts for this season, was named to the Summit League all-tournament team after posting 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots in the Golden Eagles’ 92-58 rout of North Dakota State in the Tuesday night title game. He is averaging 12.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots for a 30-4 team and was named Summit League Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
— Matt Bradley, San Diego State: Cal’s best player for two years, the 6-5 guard is a two-time All-Mountain West first-team selection. Bradley is averaging a team-best 13.0 points and will lead the 20th-ranked Aztecs (24-6) into the conference tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night.
— Andre Kelly, UC Santa Barbara: The 6-8 forward from Stockton stuck it out at Cal for four seasons, topping 1,000 career points before exiting as a graduate transfer to UCSB. He is averaging 9.7 points and a team-best 6.5 rebounds for the Gauchos (24-7), who tied UC Irvine for the Big West title and take on Cal Poly in the conference tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night.