Saint Mary’s might benefit from a serious non-conference test before its daunting final stretch of the West Coast Conference season.
The 23rd-ranked Gaels look to match a season high with their seventh straight victory when they step out of league play to host Kent State on Saturday.
Saint Mary’s (23-3) heads into its matchup with the Mid-American Conference’s top team coming off a pair of lopsided league victories. The Gaels hit a school-record 17 3-pointers in a 100-64 win at Pepperdine on Monday, two days after an 80-49 victory at Loyola Marymount.
“We’re putting a message out there,” said guard Carlin Hughes, who had 12 points and was one six Saint Mary’s players to score in double figures Monday.
Despite being the league’s only ranked team, the Gaels remain in a fight for their first conference title since sharing it with Santa Clara in 1996-97.
Saint Mary’s is tied with Gonzaga atop the WCC standings, with San Diego 1 1/2 games back. The Gaels host San Diego on Monday, then travel to Gonzaga on Saturday before closing the regular season at Portland on March 3.
Facing a quality opponent like Kent State (22-5), which has won five in a row and is 11-3 against non-conference foes, could serve as good preparation for the Gaels’ grueling conference stretch.
Saint Mary’s, trying for its 16th consecutive home victory, is 13-2 when stepping out of the WCC this season. That record includes wins over then-No. 12 Oregon, current No. 16 Drake and Seton Hall.
The Gaels hope to build off their most recent victory against Pepperdine, where they shot a season-best 58.6 percent from the field and went 17-of-29 from 3-point range.
“Shoot those 3s,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, whose team is shooting 37.2 from beyond the arc. “The law of averages played out for us.”
Leading scorer Patrick Mills had 18 points, Todd Golden had 15 points with 10 assists and Diamon Simpson added 13 points and 13 rebounds for Saint Mary’s.
“We’re pretty good when we get a team down,” Bennett said. “We have a balanced attack.”
Mills, who averages 15.2 points, has scored 40 while shooting 14-for-21 from the field - including 7-for-11 from 3-point range - in his last two contests.
Saturday’s game is a matchup of two solid defensive teams, with the Gaels allowing 62.6 points per game and the Golden Flashes 62.7 per contest.
Saint Mary’s looks to improve to 3-0 against Kent State. The Gaels won 61-59 at home on Dec. 22, 2005 in the teams’ most recent meeting.
Kent State won 76-66 at Buffalo on Tuesday for the 1,000th victory in the program’s history. The Flashes, who hold a two-game lead over Akron in the MAC’s East Division, shot 51.9 percent and got 20 points from leading scorer Al Fisher.
“I think we were really finding the open man and were patient so we were able to make the extra pass and when you do that you get really good shots,” said Kent State coach Jim Christian, whose team is shooting 52.2 percent in its last four contests. “We’ve worked on it in practice and it’s carried over to the games.”
The 6-foot-1 Fisher is averaging 19.3 points in his last six games to raise his season average to 13.9.