It wasn't just added motivation that Saint Mary's gained from falling in the West Coast Conference title game last year and then getting snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee.
The Gaels also learned they can't leave their fate in someone else's hands.
Before Saint Mary's played Gonzaga in last year's WCC title game, coach Randy Bennett sensed his players had relaxed a bit because most bracket projections had the Gaels in the field. This year, Saint Mary's players knew better than to rely on what they saw on TV or read on the Internet, instead summoning the intensity they lacked a year ago to crush top-seeded Gonzaga, 81-62, in Monday night's title game and earn an automatic bid.
"We saw what can happen if you leave it to chance," Bennett said. "Last year, it looked like we were in and then all of a sudden there were some upsets in the conference tournament and we were out. So this year, when we lost to Portland and Gonzaga on the road, I told them, fellas, we're out. Don't believe anything else. Just assume we're out. That's where i think our experience last year really helped us."
If missing the field last year was a bitter disappointment for Saint Mary's, earning a bid this year is an unexpected surprise. Junior guard Patrick Mills entered the NBA draft and senior Diamon Simpson graduated, leaving hard-working big man Omar Samhan and a cast of role players and newcomers to fend for themselves.
The Gaels (26-5) exceeded expectations this season because Samhan developed into a superstar, junior Mickey McConnell elevated himself from a fringe rotation player to an all-conference guard and freshman Matthew Dellavedova proved ready to contribute as a freshman. Samhan averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds a game and won the WCC's defensive player of the year award, while McConnell and Dellavedova averaged 13.7 and 12.5 points respectively.
"We had a lot of players improve," Bennett said. "From last spring until now, guys have made a huge jump. Six of our top 11 players are freshmen, so we're young, but the guys who had experience came through as players and leaders. They had to be about perfect, and they did it."
Although most bracket projections again had Saint Mary's in the field entering Monday's game, the Gaels could easily have been left out with a loss. They had fallen to Gonzaga twice already this season and their best non-conference victories came against San Diego State and Utah State, both fringe at-large teams at best.
With perhaps their best performance in Bennett's nine-year tenure, Saint Mary's made certain history would not repeat itself. They outscored Gonzaga by 18 in the second half, ending their long run of futility against the Zags, capturing their first WCC tournament title in 13 years and returning to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Since the Gaels weren't scheduled to leave Las Vegas until Tuesday morning, Bennett let his players have a night in Sin City to enjoy their hard-earned title.
"It's hard to get in that game and it's hard to win it," Bennett said. "I wanted them to stop and enjoy it for a second."
- Randy Bennett