Saint Mary’s will need to be at its best on the road down the stretch in order to claim its first West Coast Conference title in 11 seasons.
The 25th-ranked Gaels look to win their second straight away from home when they meet Loyola Marymount on Saturday night.
Saint Mary’s (21-3, 8-1) won 54-50 at Santa Clara on Monday, its fourth straight victory since losing 63-55 at San Diego for its only conference defeat. The win also improved the Gaels to 2-1 on the road in the WCC.
“This (was) our biggest road game so far,” said junior Diamon Simpson, who made two free throws with 24.4 seconds left to give the Gaels the lead for good. “We learned from the San Diego game when we got down how to fight back.”
The Gaels, who led by 10 at halftime Monday, will need to be prepared for similar challenges in the final weeks of the conference season as they play four of their last five league games away from home. That includes a trip to Gonzaga on Mar. 1.
The Gaels and Bulldogs are tied atop the conference standings with San Diego one-half game back. Saint Mary’s hosts the Toreros on Feb. 25.
Saint Mary’s hasn’t won a league title since sharing it with Santa Clara in 1996-97.
On Monday, the Gaels overcame a 40.0-percent shooting night and being outrebounded 38-27. Saint Mary’s, however, held the Broncos to 36.7 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers.
It was the third time in four games the Gaels held an opponent to fewer than 52 points, and well below their 63.1 points allowed per contest.
“Man, that’s a good win. Whew,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “They smashed us on the boards. Good thing we defended. I thought we did a really good job down the stretch defensively.”
Reserve Tron Smith had 15 points and Simpson added 12 for the Gaels, who got by despite leading scorer Patrick Mills being held to nine points on 4-for-14 shooting. Mills is averaging 14.8 points per game, but has scored just 19 combined in his last two contests.
“Like we’ve been saying all year long, we’ve got a lot of players and a lot of depth,” Smith said. “I’ve been struggling a little lately with my jump shot but I’m always confident. Any time we need a basket, I will step up and shoot it.”
Simpson had a season-high 21 points in Saint Mary’s 87-55 home win over Loyola Marymount on Jan. 21. The Gaels have won three in a row over the Lions (5-20, 2-7) and four of the last six meetings in Los Angeles.
Loyola Marymount fell 83-50 at Gonzaga on Monday for its second straight loss and sixth in seven games.
Shawn Deadwiler had 11 points and was the only player in double figures for the Lions, who are the league’s lowest scoring team at 62.2 points per game.
Loyola Marymount, in a four-way tie for fifth in the conference, is 2-8 at home this season.