MORAGA, Calif. (AP)—Tron Smith and Todd Golden will soon leave Saint Mary’s in better shape than they found it. Until then, the seniors settled for departing McKeon Pavilion in style.
Smith scored 15 points and Golden added 10 in their final home game, and the 25th-ranked Gaels avenged the only conference loss of their remarkable season with a 61-54 victory over San Diego on Monday night.
Diamon Simpson had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Saint Mary’s, and he made two key plays in the final seconds as the Gaels (24-4, 11-1 West Coast Conference) persevered through another quiet game from star freshman Patty Mills, their leading scorer.
A showdown with No. 24 Gonzaga looms for Saint Mary’s on Saturday, a fact not lost on the Gaels or their grateful crowd. The game is likely to decide the regular-season conference championship, which the Gaels haven’t won since 1997— but until then, they were determined not to waste the final home date of a season that’s exceeded nearly all expectations.
“It’s an awesome feeling to go out on top,” said Smith, a transfer who enrolled at three other schools before finding a home in the Bay Area’s eastern hills. “We just wanted to make sure we took care of business, because we owed these guys.”
The two seniors have been key role players for the Gaels, but both stepped into prominent roles against the Toreros (16-13, 9-3), who beat Saint Mary’s at home 63-55 on Jan. 28.
Smith scored 10 first-half points and played stellar defense on Brandon Johnson, San Diego’s leading scorer. Smith also had two key baskets during a decisive 14-4 spurt midway through the second half—a run made with no help from Mills, who finished with just two points, none in the second half.
“Teams have really started sitting on (Mills) and making it tough for him to get shots,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “We didn’t shoot it great, yet we were still able to score and separate down the stretch. Our depth wore on them a little bit, and that’s been a strength of our team all year.”
After a fitting curtain call at home, Saint Mary’s is in position to do even greater things over the next few weeks—starting this weekend in Spokane. The Gaels and perennial power Bulldogs are both 11-1 in the WCC.
“It’s on our minds a lot,” Simpson said of the upcoming trip, which ends at Portland next Monday. “That was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, so we’re going to try to get it.”
Just two days after losing a BracketBuster home game to Kent State, Saint Mary’s went nearly 8 minutes without a field goal down the stretch against San Diego. But the Gaels played solid defense and got heady play from Simpson to improve to 7-1 in February.
Johnson scored 15 points and Gyno Pomare added 14 for the Toreros, who will host the WCC tournament as the No. 3 seed.
“We certainly had some opportunities with some shots around the basket that we didn’t finish,” San Diego coach Bill Grier said. “We do such a good job on Mills, and yet they don’t seem to struggle. That’s how you can tell they’re a good team.”
Mills, the Gaels’ Australian point guard and leading scorer, took just one shot in the first half and played mediocre defense, though he had five assists. He watched Saint Mary’s decisive run on the bench with a towel around his neck, but was the first cheerleader off the bench as the Gaels pulled away.
Hughes, Mills’ countryman, provided the game’s most sublime play during the run when he stripped the ball from Danny Brown, dribbled the length of the court and bounced a behind-the-back pass to Golden, who hit a layup while getting fouled.
The senior’s free throw put Saint Mary’s up 49-37, and Omar Samhan’s layup stretched the lead to 14 points moments later. Samhan played despite a dislocated shoulder, scoring seven points.
After Simpson hit a layup with 40 seconds left, San Diego trimmed the lead to 56-53 on Chris Lewis’ 3-pointer. Carlin Hughes hit two free throws before Simpson fought through a crowd to secure the ball and draw a foul with 8 seconds left.