MORAGA, Calif. — Balance, deft shooting and defensive prowess once again carried the Saint Mary’s basketball team Sunday in a dominating 77-65 victory over Southeastern Conference member Georgia in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament at McKeon Pavilion.
The win moves Saint Mary’s (29-5) to the NIT Quarterfinals for the first time since 2009. The Gaels will travel to Indiana to take on No. 1-seed Valparaiso for a chance to go to New York and Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals. The game is set for 4 p.m. PDT on Tuesday and will be nationally televised on ESPN.
“We played well. We definitely played well,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett. “We made shots, a few guys played outstanding, but I found our bench gave us some really good lift. Stefan Gonzalez came in and gave us three 3s which really helped.”
Saint Mary’s earned its school-record 29th victory by showing Georgia (20-14) why its the best shooting team in the country, topping the Bulldogs from the field, 50.0 to 37.9 percent. The Gaels had at least three players score in double figures Sunday for the 31st time this season, this time with four. SMC also held Georgia to its second-lowest first-half points total of the season, leading 36-23 at halftime.
Emmett Naar led all players with a double-double, scoring 15 points and dishing 11 assists. Dane Pineau also posted a double-double with 12 points and 11 boards. Evan Fitzner and Joe Rahon each had 13 points.
“I was pretty happy with how I played,” said Naar. “Obviously the other guys on the team make it a lot easier. I feel like a lot of my assists were sort of just throwing it to someone and they made a great shot, so that helps a lot obviously on the stat sheet. But I mean all around it was a great team game. It’s easier to play well individually when everyone on the team plays well and that’s what happened tonight.”
Georgia also had four players in double figures, led by J.J. Frazier and Charles Mann with 13 points each. Yante Maten had 12 points, and Kenny Gaines added 11.
“I’d say probably, we were able to guard them, stop them defensively,” said Fitzner about the key to Saint Mary’s win. :They had a couple good players, No. 1 (Maten) and 30 (Frazier), who in the past have scored a lot of points against teams and I think we did a pretty good job stopping those guys. And that’s not any individual guys, just a team effort. So I think we did a good job stopping those guys and the rest of the team.”
“That was the game plan,” said Bennett of stopping Maten and Frazier. “I mean, those two were the game plan and point of emphasis. That team plays off of those two guys and Maten missed some shots he probably usually hits. It was a team deal. You can’t play them straight-up. You have to bring help somewhere. Maten and Frazier make everyone better because they knife in there and get penetration and kick out. We’re just glad they missed some shots they’d usually hit.”
It was just a four-point game at 51-47 in favor of SMC with 11 minutes, 48 seconds, left, but the Gaels created all the separation they would need with an 11-0 run over the next 3 1/2 minutes. Georgia went 0 for 8 during the Gaels’ run, and Saint Mary’s lead would never again fall below double digits.
Saint Mary’s had 19 assists on 29 made field goals. It also won the battle on the boards, out-rebounding Georgia 41-35.
“Feel great,” said Fitzner about the victory. “I mean, we felt like we should’ve gotten into the (NCAA) Tournament, so this is just us trying to prove that we deserve to be there. So we just have to keep playing as hard as we can and see what we can do.”