Anytime Saint Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova feels his motivation waning in the weight room or on the practice floor, the junior guard thinks back to the way the Gaels' season finished a year ago.
Saint Mary's bolted to a 22-4 record highlighted by impressive victories over St. John's, Mississippi State and Gonzaga, but the Gaels faded badly in late February and March. Four losses in seven games to end the regular season robbed them of an NCAA tournament bid and a poor first-round NIT performance in a loss to Kent State cost them the chance to at least prove to the selection committee it had made a mistake.
"Missing the tournament and not playing well in the NIT really hurt," Dellavedova said. "That was really disappointing. We definitely want to make the NCAA tournament this year, so everyone is working hard to make that happen. We need to keep improving every day and every practice."
Saint Mary's certainly appears to be on track for a return to the NCAA tournament after throttling WCC rival Gonzaga 83-62 in Moraga on Thursday night. The Gaels (16-2, 5-0) now boast wins by at least 16 points over Northern Iowa, Missouri State, BYU and Gonzaga, good enough to propel them to first place in the WCC by 1.5 games over the Cougars, Zags and Loyola Marymount.
Even though Saint Mary's graduated leading scorer Mickey McConnell, the Gaels continue to show the ability to absorb the loss of a star and remain in the NCAA tournament hunt year after year. They've won 25 or more games each of the past four seasons despite losing talented players like Patrick Mills and Omar Samhan during that period.
What appears to make this year's team less vulnerable to a late-season collapse than last year's is that Saint Mary's is a significantly better defensive team. Opponents are shooting 40.3 percent against the Gaels and scoring just .91 points per possession compared to 44.1 percent and 0.98 points per possession a year ago, statistics that suggest the Gaels could also have success in the second half of conference play against BYU and Gonzaga on the road.
"We're a lot better defensively this season," Dellavedova said. "We worked really hard in the spring and summer and we've really focused on that a lot."
Every area Saint Mary's has improved was on display Thursday night in front of a national TV audience and a raucous sellout crowd. The Gaels proved once again that they may be the biggest obstacle in Gonzaga's path to the WCC crown, building an eight-point halftime lead and then running the Zags out of the gym in the second half.
Dellavedova was the best player on the floor, scoring 26 points, sinking five threes and dishing out six assists compared to just one turnover. Sweet-shooting guard Steven Holt, forward Brad Waldow and big man Mitchell Young each also scored in double figures to key a balanced attack.
What was most amazing about the Saint Mary's victory was that it came with star forward Rob Jones not scoring a single point until a late bucket in the second half long after the outcome was decided. Jones did still have 11 rebounds and eight assists and he played solid interior defense, helping limit Gonzaga center Robert Sacre to four points on 1-for-7 shooting and reserve Sam Dower to eight points on 1-for-4 from the field.
"I probably wouldn't have expected this margin of victory with Rob not scoring much, but there were a lot of people who contributed and Rob still played a great game," Dellavedova said. "He was tough inside. He played great defense. He got into a little bit of foul trouble but he stuck with it."
One of the best aspects of the victory for Dellavedova was the Australia native's parents were in the stands to see it. He treated them to a strong performance and a win that could go a long way to help the Gaels return to the NCAA tournament this March.
"I wouldn't be here without my parents," Dellavedova said. "They've always encouraged me, rebounded for me and supported me all the way through, so it's great having them here and playing well in front of them."
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