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Ticket Punched: Shorthanded Saint Mary’s appears poised for a scrappy NCAA tourney run

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Despite being shorthanded, Saint Mary's proved in Monday's WCC title game that it can win with grit in March.  …

LAS VEGAS — For much of the night, finesse and precision was what gave Saint Mary's junior point guard Matthew Dellavedova the upper hand in a crucial match-up with Gonzaga freshman star Kevin Pangos.

But when it came down to a key play in overtime of the West Coast Conference title game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Dellavedova called upon gritty lessons learned in his childhood, when the Australian's game of choice wasn't basketball.

After blowing a five-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation, Saint Mary's found itself again tied in overtime with just under a minute left to play at 72-72. A long rebound off of a Pangos 3-point miss turned into a 50-50 ball in the backcourt, shooting towards the Gonzaga bench. Dellavedova simply beat Pangos to the spot, drew contact near the scorer's table, hit two ensuing free throws, and Saint Mary's never looked back.

The shorthanded Gaels downed the Bulldogs in overtime, 78-74, in their fourth consecutive meeting in the WCC title game, and they're now headed to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

[NCAA tournament tracker: VCU, the 2011 darling, is back dancing]

"I saw the ball there and it just bounced off, I knew he was coming for it, so I was trying to run as hard as I could to get to it and put my body in front of his," Dellavedova said. "That probably goes back to playing Australian rules football as a kid."

He hit four free throws in overtime that capped a masterful performance that came when his team needed it the most.

Pangos had scored 30 points, including a 5-of-9 showing from long range, in Saturday night's semifinal blowout of BYU.

Monday night didn't go quite as well.

Dellavedova, the WCC Player of the Year, led the defensive charge against Pangos, who struggled to get the same bevy of open looks that BYU seemed content to let him have. The result was a 3-of-18 shooting performance, including hitting just one of 10 3-point tries.

"Pangos hurt us up at Gonzaga, so we knew he could do that," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "Matt, his basketball IQ is way up there, and he had a good idea of how to guard him.

"He's got it. I've hit it about every way I can. I don't know if I'll ever coach a guy as good a leader as him. He knows in a game like this, he's supposed to step up, and he did."

Dellavedova found other ways to score, including draining an impossible-to-guard running floater down the lane four times. He finished with 22 points.

Of equal importance for the Gaels, who enter the tournament at 27-5, was the production they got from their frontcourt duo of undersized senior Rob Jones and freshman Brad Waldow.

[Related: Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew may be on the verge of another March miracle]

Gonzaga's Robert Sacre and Elias Harris were able to combine for 39 points, including Harris's dramatic 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation that pushed the game to overtime and sent a pro-Gonzaga crowd into a frenzy. Instead of stopping Sacre and Harris, Jones and Waldow simply matched them, with 31 points and 17 rebounds between them.

"I think after [Harris' clutch shot], we knew we were still the tougher team," Jones said. "We just came out, kept competing and playing basketball. In the end, we got it done."

Both Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are now heading to the NCAA tournament, but Monday night's overtime period was very telling in terms of hinting at which program could find more success in the dance.

Losing their top perimeter defender — sophomore guard Stephen Holt — to a knee injury a few games ago only seemed to toughen Saint Mary's towards the end of a brutal skid in which they lost three of four games at the end of the regular season. They responded by sweeping a pair of crucial road games at Portland and at San Francisco, clinching a share of the WCC regular season title in the process.

"I've never seen our team more focused for a weekend of games than they were for that," Bennett recalled.

Fast forward to Monday night, when Gonzaga had all of the momentum in the world on its side both at halftime and at the end of regulation. But in both instances, a shorthanded Saint Mary's club scrapped its way ahead.

Two things were clear on Monday night in Las Vegas — the Bulldogs have more talent, but the Gaels right now look like a team better built for an NCAA tournament run.

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Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for RunRebs.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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