St. Mary’s in driver’s seat, but WCC race not yet decided

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Forget, for a moment, that No. 23 St. Mary’s (24-5, 13-2) is sitting in first place in the West Coast Conference and Portland (6-22, 3-12) has settled toward the bottom.

If the Gaels couldn’t take care of business on Thursday night, they would fall from the Top 25 and into bubble team purgatory, unsure if their 22-2 start would ultimately go to waste and land them a spot in the NIT.

Not a problem.

Behind a strong performance of 12 points, nine assists, and one turnover from guard Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s handled Portland on the road, on their way to a 70-43 win.

Mid-majors sometimes come across the unique situation that St. Mary’s faced on Thursday night, where a win would keep all plans on track, but, having lost three of their last four games, another defeat could have left the Gaels open to a number of questions about their postseason fate.

But the victory keeps things moving in the right direction and shifts more power into the hands of the Gaels, themselves, clinching at least a share of the West Coast Conference title and a double-bye in the conference tournament.

And as St. Mary’s took care of Portland, they were keeping an eye on the game going on in Spokane, Wash., where Gonzaga and BYU were fighting for the right to stay in the race for a share of the WCC regular season title.

Elias Harris had 19 points, including an emphatic one-handed slam with just over two minutes to play, and led Gonzaga to 74-63 win, keeping them one game behind St. Mary’s with one game to play.

So here is the scenario:

-If St. Mary’s beats San Francisco on Saturday, the Gaels win the title outright.

– If St. Mary’s loses and Gonzaga can win on the road at San Diego, the Bulldogs would pull into a tie in the WCC race and claim a share of the title.

– As a side note and in addition to the games Saturday, Gonzaga has one more game, this coming against Longwood State on Feb. 27th, which has no bearing on the conference standings.

With the top two teams in the WCC Tournament getting a double-bye, that benefits the team that clinched that spot tonight, St. Mary’s, as they have been struggling with injury problems throughout the season.

Dellavedova has had a nagging ankle injury and guard Stephen Holt, the third leading scorer on the team, sat out Thursday night’s game against Portland with a knee problem.

Point is, give a mature team like St. Mary’s some more time to recover, and you’ll be looking at an even tougher opponent.

But the bigger question is, how many bids will the WCC get in the NCAA Tournament?

Right now, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s are all but locked in, regardless of what happens in the conference tournament.

Meanwhile, BYU still has some work to do.

Leading scorer Noah Hartsock, who is averaging 17 points per game, didn’t play in the second half against Gonzaga on Thursday night, and the Cougars hope the injury doesn’t linger, though the good news is that an MRI on the region showed no structural damage.

Assuming Hartsock is healthy, BYU is a team that puts up a lot of points and rebounds the basketball well, thanks in part to the strong frontcourt combination of Hartsock and junior Brandon Davies, who had 23 points against Gonzaga.

Add guard Matt Carlino, who helped to shoulder much of the scoring burden in Hartsock’s absence, and it wouldn’t be prudent to count BYU out in the WCC Tournament.

Then there’s Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs got key backcourt play from freshmen Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. on Thursday night. Though the two didn’t shoot well from the field (6-of-17), they converted at the free throw line (14-of-20) and combined for 30 points.

Mark Few’s team has won at least a share of 11-straight West Coast Conference regular season titles, doing a mid-major impression of what Kansas has done in the Big 12 over the past decade.

Even if they can’t win a 12th-straight title, their at-large resume will get them into the NCAA Tournament. Like a piece of treasure buried away and recovered much later, the Bulldogs’ Nov. 30th win over Notre Dame is beginning to shine as a quality victory, as the Irish pick up steam down the stretch.

Gonzaga included, there should be three teams from the WCC headed to the NCAA Tournament, especially considering the weakness of the Pac 12.

The magic will come, though, in how the cards are shuffled. For now, it looks like St. Mary’s is the team to beat.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_