MORAGA, Calif. — They say the third time is a charm.
Saint Mary’s junior point guard Joe Rahon stood on the free-throw line Tuesday night with the game tied and just two seconds left on the clock, the game – and the season – lying in his hands for the third time this season.
This time Rahon made both of his free throws, clinching a 58-56 win over New Mexico State in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament at McKeon Pavilion.
The Gaels (28-5) now await their next opponent in the NIT, which will be the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 6 seed Belmont and No. 3 seed Georgia.
“Get ready for overtime. That is what I was thinking,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennettabout his thoughts when New Mexico State tied the game. “Then they fouled so thank goodness. He did foul, it was a series of not-very-smart plays on our part down the stretch and we are lucky to get out of there with a win.”
Saint Mary’s survived a late 10-0 run by the Aggies (23-11) to tie the game after trailing by double digits with less than 4 1/2 minutes to play. The Gaels turned the ball over six times during NMSU’s , including five times in a row, during NMSU’s run, but Rahon’s free throws were all the Gaels needed in the end.
“Make it. Making them,” said Rahon about what was on his mind when he went to the free-throw line. “I’ve been sure from the line all year but I work on it and you’ve got to trust your practice. Just going to the line and thinking I missed one at Cal, but here’s a chance to redeem myself. It’s kind of cool I came full circle and I was able to knock them down for the team.”
On Dec. 12 at Cal, Rahon went to the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity with the Gaels trailing by two and just 1.7 seconds left, but he missed the front end and Saint Mary’s would lose by four. On Jan. 21 versus Gonzaga, Rahon was at the line with 6.6 seconds and a tie game, but he made just one of two free throws to give the Bulldogs a chance before SMC held on for the 70-67 win. Tuesday he made sure to make both.
“Pretty cool,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett of Rahon’s free-throw saga. “The one at Cal stung, but for him to go from there to here where he was in the same situation, and to hit both free throws to win us the game is pretty cool. That’s the story of this team right there. They keep making improvements as players and individuals, and those improvements make our team get better. We are all real happy for him. Those were real big free throws.”
The same formula that made it one of the best teams in the country all season long worked once again Tuesday night for Saint Mary’s, as the Gaels used a balanced scoring attack and handled the ball well in the victory. SMC had three players score in double figures for the 30th time this season. The Gaels, who began the night with the nation’s best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.77), also had 14 assists on 24 made field goals. The nation’s best shooting team outshot New Mexico State, 51.1 to 35.9 percent.
Rahon led the way with 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Dane Pineau had 13 points and seven boards, and Emmett Naar had 12 points and six helpers.
Saint Mary’s ran to its biggest lead of the game at 13 points with a 10-2 run, taking a 45-32 lead with 13:47 to play. NMSU would cut the Gaels’ lead to six on two more occasions, with SMC answering each time with a run to put it back at double digits. The third time Saint Mary’s notched its lead at double digits with a 56-46 lead at the 4:24 mark – that’s when the Aggies made their run.
New Mexico State was led by 19 points from Pascal Siakam. Siakam scored the first two points of the Aggies’ 10-0 game-tying run. Ian Baker (13 points) scored six straight during the run and Tanveer Bhullar scored the tying bucket.
New Mexico State shot just 30.3 percent (10 for 33) in the first half, but it trailed by only five points at the break thanks in part to five 3-pointers. The Aggies controlled the offensive boards during the first 20 minutes with an 8-2 advantage in offensive rebounds, yet only managed three second-chance points.