ALBANY, N.Y. – Saint Mary’s got the pace it wanted – and another win in the NCAA Tournament.
Mitchell Saxen had 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocks, and Saint Mary’s beat ailing VCU 63-51 on Friday.
Alex Ducas also scored 17 points as the fifth-seeded Gaels (27-7) advanced to the second round for the second straight year. Logan Johnson had 12 points and 10 rebounds – part of a strong effort in the paint for Saint Mary’s – and reserve Augustas Marciulionis scored 13 points.
In a matchup of the Gaels’ more deliberate style and the Rams’ up-tempo game, Saint Mary’s controlled most of the action.
“I thought we’d beat them inside,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Both teams have good guards. It was a gritty game, and we just kind of outlasted them a little bit and got a little separation and were able to hang on.”
Ace Baldwin led VCU (27-8) with 13 points, but he hurt his Achilles tendon and groin after taking a jumper with just over 14 minutes left in regulation. The Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year lay on the court for a couple of minutes before receiving treatment on the bench and back in the locker room.
VCU was down 38-34 when Baldwin left and 48-39 when he came back with 9:03 left after the Gaels of the West Coast Conference went on a 10-5 spurt sparked by a three-point play by Kyle Bowen.
Baldwin hit a jump shot after returning but left the floor for good three minutes later.
“It’s a bummer,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “Your best player goes down in an NCAA Tournament game, like come on, man. But this is sports. This is competition. Things happen. You’ve still got to find ways. You’ve still got to find a way. Look, we got beat by a better team today. They played better in the second half than we did, and they won.”
Saint Mary’s held VCU to its second-lowest point total of the season. The Rams had 47 against Memphis.
“The whole second half, our message to each other was keep plugging, keep running our offense, and they’re going to break,” Saxen said. “(The injury) might have been the tipping point that broke the dam, but I think it’s a testament to our persistence and just trusting each other that we were able to just keep plugging until the water broke.”
Saint Mary’s, which held a 37-29 rebounding edge, will play No. 4 seed UConn or 13th-seeded Iona and coach Rick Pitino on Sunday.
The NCAA appearance was the first for 12th-seeded VCU since it had to forfeit a game in the 2021 tournament because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The Rams had won nine in a row.
Saint Mary’s held a 29-28 halftime lead in a rugged contest where neither team led by more than four points and tight, tough defense was the norm.
Saint Mary’s shot 3 for 17 from 3-point range and 41% (20 for 49) overall. Freshman guard Aidan Mahaney, who was averaging 14.5 points, was 0 for 5 from the field and didn’t score for the first time this season.
“Like I said before, this is the best sporting event in this country,” Bennett said. “So everybody’s watching. There’s a little pressure there. I look forward to seeing him play Sunday. He’s a good player. He got in foul trouble, and he didn’t have a great game today, but he’ll bounce back.”
VCU wasn’t much better. It only made six field goals in the second half. It shot 36.7% (18 for 48). Baldwin was its only player in double figures.
VCU: The Rams have a lot coming back, so they should be able to contend next season.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels showed they can play defense, too.
Saint Mary’s got bounced in the second round by UCLA late year after beating Indiana by 29.