Introducing Cinderella: Saint Mary’s upsets No. 1 Gonzaga to earn WCC automatic bid

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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That noise you hear is bubbles popping in around the country.

Saint Mary’s proved the old axiom true: The hardest thing to do in college basketball is to beat a team three times in one season, as they took out Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the nation, 60-47, to earn the WCC’s automatic bid and end the dream of one unsuspecting bubble team.

Jordan Ford had an off-night but he still finished with 17 points while Jordan Hunter added 12 points and 15 boards, but the story of this game was what the Gaels were able to do defensively. Gonzaga shot 38.3 percent from the floor. They were just 2-for 17 from beyond the arc. The 47 points Mark Few’s team scored was their lowest offensive output since they mustered just 41 points in a loss at Duke in Dec. 2009.

Should I mention that the Zags entered the game as one of the most efficient offenses that we’ve ever seen? They managed all of 0.783 points-per-possession on Tuesday night.

And while it would be easy to point the finger at Josh Perkins, who struggled mightily, or note just how poorly Zach Norvell shot, the truth is that this win came down to Randy Bennett’s game-plan and the way that St. Mary’s executed it. They did not allow the Zags to get out in transition. They did not take bad shot, and they exploited mismatches offensively when they found them. They controlled tempo and made Gonzaga work for every stop they got.

For a team that lost to the Zags by 48 points earlier this season, I’m sure that this win feels great.

Because twice in the last three years, the Gaels found themselves in the NIT with a 28-5 record thanks to a loss in the WCC tournament, including last season.

What’s more interesting is that this Saint Mary’s win ends the bubble life of … well, of someone. As of this morning, that someone would have been N.C. State, who was the last team in the field in our most recent bracket projection. Clemson is the second to last team in the field, meaning that when those two square off Wednesday at noon they will be playing in what should be a de facto play-out game.

All of that is subject to change.

What is not going to change, however, is where Saint Mary’s will be playing their postseason basketball.

They are tournament bound, and there is nothing a Selection Committee can do about it.

Anyway, let’s get to know the Gaels.

CONFERENCE: WCC

COACH: Randy Bennett

RECORD: 22-11, 11-5 WCC (2nd)

RATINGS

  • KENPOM: 29
  • NET: 37

PROJECTED SEED: The Gaels are likely looking at being somewhere around the 12 seed line. They cannot end up in a play-in game, but since they were not considered to be a real candidate for an at-large bid, it’s hard to imagine them passing too many of those at-large teams.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: The best player on the Gaels is their starting point guard Jordan Ford. He’s a Patty Mills clone in the way he plays, a super-quick, dynamic playmaker capable of getting 30 on any given night. Malik Fitts has grown into an effective player after transferring into the program from South Florida, while Jordan Hunter, Tommy Kuhse and Tanner Krebs have all popped up for big games this year.

But, to be frank, it’s Ford. He’s the difference-maker.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga on a neutral floor. That’s pretty good! It’s also one of just two Q1 wins (New Mexico State on the road) to go along a pair of Q3 losses.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: For me, the most important number to know here is 63.0. They average just 63 possessions per game, 347th nationally, and if slowing down Gonzaga on Tuesday night is any indication, the Gaels can do this against just about anyone.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Everyone should know who Saint Mary’s is at this point. They’ve been the best program in the WCC not named Gonzaga for more than a decade. It may be hard to believe, but it’s now been nine years since Omar Samhan carried Gonzaga to the Sweet 16 in 2010.

FINAL THOUGHT: I don’t know if this Saint Mary’s team is actually good enough to win a game in the NCAA tournament. What I do know is that they actually earned their way in by getting the wins they needed to advance. I, for one, am glad that someone like the Gaels will play in the NCAA tournament instead of, say, a Clemson team with one Q1 win on the season.