Saint Mary’s snapped an eight-game losing streak to arch-rival Gonzaga on Thursday night, erasing a 15-point second half deficit and overcoming one of the dumbest fouls you’ll see this season en route to a court storm, sole possession of first place in the WCC and a 70-67 win.
Evan Fitzner led four players in double-figures for the Gaels with 20 points while Emmett Naar added 16 points and four assists for Saint Mary’s, who are shockingly 16-2 overall and 7-1 in the WCC now.
When I say that it’s “shocking” how successful this group is, it’s not a shot at Randy Bennett. It’s a compliment, actually. The Gaels lost all five starters off of last year’s team, including star center Brad Waldow. They have no seniors on their roster. This was the year they were supposed to finish in the middle of the WCC pack, yet they’re not only all alone atop the league standings, they’re currently ranked 14th on KenPom, a number powered by a ruthlessly efficient offense.
That’s because they’re not only the best shooting team in the country, they’re the best shooting team in the last 15 seasons. In the KenPom era, which dates back to the 2001-02 season, only one team — Samford in 2004, who checked in at 60.3% — finished the year with an effective field goal percentage above 60.0%. Saint Mary’s eFG% is a crisp 62.6%.
What made this win so important was that the Gaels have some work to do if they’re going to get into the NCAA tournament. They’re best wins this season are BYU, Stanford, UC Irvine and the Zags — all at home — none of which are tracking to end the season as top 50 wins. The WCC looks like it might end up being a one-bid league, but if the Gaels want a real chance on Selection Sunday, this was a win they needed.
Now about that foul …
With 6.6 seconds left and the Gaels up 68-67, senior guard Joe Rahon missed a free throw and proceeded to intentionally foul Eric McClellan 75 feet from the rim because he thought he heard his coach tell him to.
“Yeah … that was a brain fart,” Rahon told ESPN after the win.
He’s lucky that’s all it was, because McClellan missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have won the game for the Zags.
As far as Gonzaga is concerned, it was nice to see McClellan (23 points) step up on a night where Wiltjer was totally taken away; the all-american finished with just six points on 3-for-7 shooting and missed a huge, wide-open three with two minutes left.
That’s not going to be a trend, not with how well Wiltjer can score the call. What has become a trend, however, is just how often Gonzaga blows leads. They were up 16 at the half on UConn and only won by three. They were up 12 at the half against Arizona at home and lost. They were up 13 with 12 minutes left against BYU at home and lost. And they were up 15 early in the second half against Saint Mary’s.
Throw in the fact that all five of Gonzaga’s losses have come by five points or less — a total of 15 points — and I think what you’re seeing is the manifestation of losing Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., the back court duo that started for Mark Few for four seasons.