How much success Saint Mary’s has in the final weeks of the regular season could depend on the play of a freshman.
Leading scorer Patrick Mills looks for another big game as he tries to help the No. 23 Gaels remain atop the West Coast Conference when they visit Pepperdine on Monday night.
Mills, the 6-foot freshman from Australia, appears to be over his recent slump after scoring 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting in Saint Mary’s 80-49 road rout of Loyola Marymount on Saturday night.
Mills, averaging 15.0 points, is a 43.6 percent shooter and has made a team-high 46 3-pointers. However, he shot 32.4 percent from the field - including 0-for-13 from 3-point range - in his three games prior to Saturday.
The Gaels (22-3, 9-1) continued to play well while Mills struggled, as they’ve won five in a row, but are a much tougher team to beat with him on his game.
“It was only a matter of time,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, whose team is tied with Gonzaga for first place in the league, one-half game ahead of San Diego. “We were able to continue winning during his shooting slump and I’m glad he came out of it sooner rather than later.”
Saint Mary’s, which won two of the three games during Mills’ slump by just four points each time, will likely need his offensive contributions down the stretch. The Gaels play three of their final four league contests on the road.
Mills had a modest outing in Saint Mary’s 79-74 home win over Pepperdine on Jan. 19, scoring 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting.
“This league is getting very tough, with Gonzaga and San Diego,” said Mills, who went 4-for-7 from 3-point range Saturday. “We’re all racing for the No. 1 spot. A lot of hard work still needs to be done.”
If Mills gets hot and the Gaels’ defense remains strong, Saint Mary’s should have a good chance to claim its first conference title since sharing it with Santa Clara in 1996-97.
On Saturday, the Gaels held Loyola Marymount to 26.4 percent shooting - the lowest by a Saint Mary’s opponent this season. The Gaels also allowed fewer than 52 points for the fourth time in five games.
“We all know defensive intensity is one of our strengths,” Mills said of Saint Mary’s, which is allowing 57.8 points per game in conference play.
Saint Mary’s will try for a third straight win over Pepperdine and fourth in a row in Malibu, where the Waves (9-17, 3-7) are 4-5 this season.
Pepperdine, though, is coming off a 64-58 home victory over Santa Clara on Saturday, its second straight win since losing three in a row.
Rico Tucker had 19 points for the Waves, who won despite shooting 37.5 percent and allowing the Broncos to shoot 57.1 percent. Pepperdine improved to 3-5 under interim coach Eric Bridgeland.
“They have the hearts of lions,” said Bridgeland, who replaced Vance Walberg after he resigned Jan. 17. “We’re starting to form an identity. We’re starting to figure out what we do well.”
Tucker had 16 points in last month’s meeting with Saint Mary’s.
Pepperdine has lost 10 in a row to ranked opponents since a 75-61 win over then-No. 20 Wisconsin on Nov. 27, 2004.