March 24, 2009
MORAGA, Calif. -- Patrick Mills screamed over the final buzzer and waved both arms joyously skyward, goading the raucous Saint Mary's fans into what might have been the first storm-the-court celebration in the history of the NIT's second round.This was no ordinary early-round game in college hoops' consolation tournament, however. After winning a full-tilt duel with Davidson's Stephen Curry, Mills wanted to leave his fans with one last memory to match this entertaining matchup.
Mills had 23 points and 10 assists while leading Saint Mary's into the NIT quarterfinals with an 80-68 victory Monday night. Curry had 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists in what might have been the national scoring leader's final game for the Wildcats (27-8), but Mills overcame his awful 3-point shooting with effective passing and just enough of his usual daredevil drives to the hoop, preventing Davidson from rallying late.
Mills and Curry briefly chatted before the game, each telling the other to simply have fun. After occasionally guarding each other, they met up again briefly afterward while dodging the red-clad fans whooping it up at McKeon Pavilion, wishing each other luck until their paths cross again probably in the NBA.
"It was a personal challenge, and the sort of personal experience you don't get every week," Mills said. "I thrive on things like that. It took the whole team to guard [Curry], and we did that, a little bit. He had 26, but we guarded him."
The NIT rarely gets more intriguing matchups than this showdown between Mills and Curry, two high-scoring point guards who felt their teams were unfairly denied NCAA tournament berths. Neither guard disappointed, but Curry acknowledged Mills and the Gaels (28-6) were a bit sharper overall.
"Hostile crowd, big atmosphere, it was definitely a fun game for all involved," Curry said, describing Mills as "relentless. He's just always on the attack."Omar Samhan added 18 points and nine rebounds for the Gaels, who will play Wednesday night at San Diego State, with the winner getting a trip to Madison Square Garden next week for the NIT semifinals.
Mills, the Australian Olympic star, scored 17 points in the first half of what probably was his final game at McKeon Pavilion, where fans chant "Aussie Aussie Aussie!" after his baskets. He struggled with 1-of-10 3-point shooting, a common theme since his return from a broken hand two weeks ago.
But Curry, last season's NCAA hero during Davidson's run to the regional final, couldn't quite spur a second-half comeback late in the Wildcats' cross-country trip, missing 11 of his final 17 shots in an 11-of-27 performance that included four 3-pointers -- but none in the final 10 minutes. With the loss still fresh, Curry wasn't ready to announce whether he'll return for his senior season.
"I haven't thought about it," Curry said. "I tried to put it off until our season is over. I'll just have to get together with all the people involved in the decision, but I don't have a timeline or anything like that."
Thanks to the NIT's clever scheduling, Curry and Mills got a memorable head-to-head matchup although both wished their seasons would have ended in the bigger tournament.
Diamon Simpson had 12 points and 15 rebounds for Saint Mary's, which took charge with a 14-5 run early in the second half largely made on baskets by Mills' teammates. The Gaels maintained the lead with Mills' scoring -- and the occasional incredible pass, such as his 45-foot lob to Wayne Hunter for a layup while getting fouled with 4:43 to play, driving the crowd wild.
"It was a special game," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "I don't know if I remember a game that's been a better atmosphere. I'm pretty sure I've never been involved in a game in here that's had more hype and more attention. To play in a game like that, to play well, it makes you really proud of your kids."
The Gaels' cacophonous bandbox of a gym high in the Oakland hills was packed to the rafters 30 minutes before tipoff. Fans stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete walkway behind the last row of seats, craning their necks for a partial view of warmups during which Curry tripped over his pants and crashed to the floor on a layup attempt, getting up with a sheepish grin.
"Is this the atmosphere that they have for every game?" Davidson coach Bob McKillop asked. "It just blows my mind that they have this kind of crowd. This is very similar to [Duke's] Cameron [Indoor Stadium] in terms of the noise level, the heat, the intensity, the passion. Saint Mary's deserves credit for that."