By Jordan Greif '09
As March Madness fades across the country, it’s easy to forget how far things have come since the Saint Mary’s Gaels season tipped off inauspiciously in November. Entering the year with guarded optimism, head coach Randy Bennett kept his squad’s spirits high and their expectations for themselves even higher en route to what turned into a historic year of basketball in Moraga. In his seventh season, Bennett took a big leap in the transformation of the Gaels’ program from a regional power into a nationally recognized force. The team spent a record eight weeks in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll Top 25 and six weeks in the Associated Press Poll ledgers, peaking at No. 20, the third-highest ranking ever garnered by a Saint Mary’s basketball club. This season’s success has snowballed into a community-wide source of pride that resonates clearly in the faces of the deafening crowds that packed McKeon Pavilion for home games.
Proving themselves more than an occasional blip on the national radar screen, the Gaels are considered competitive contenders on the biggest stages and a savvy pick for NCAA Tournament success in the years to come.
The Gaels’ high hopes entering this season hinged largely on an influx of talent from an unlikely hotbed for collegiate basketball talent, Australia. The Aussie foursome of Patty Mills, Carlin Hughes, Lucas Walker and redshirt Ben Allen ignited the community that has embraced the men from Down Under. With the Australian flag on the wall, Men at Work music during timeouts and chants of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” when Mills or Hughes knocked down three-pointers, McKeon Pavilion’s raucous atmosphere was palpable even over the airwaves. More games were broadcast nationally and the sports media world (U.S. and Australian) provided unprecedented coverage as the Gaels advanced to the Big Dance.
The media frenzy began on November 20 when the Gaels took on the No. 11-ranked Oregon Ducks. ESPN’s presence electrified the Moraga crowd as freshman point guard Mills of Canberra took the floor for his fourth collegiate start. Mills exploded for a career-best 37 points to lead the Gaels to an upset victory over former SMC coach Ernie Kent’s team. After the win, Saint Mary’s never failed to receive votes in the national rankings, either AP or ESPN, and proved resilient under the intense glare of the growing spotlight.
Todd Golden remembers the pressure well. The fifth-year senior ended his career as the lone player in SMC history to play in two NCAA Tournaments (2005 and 2008). Of those memorable bookends to his playing days, Golden says, “Getting to the tournament was the proudest moment in my five-year career at SMC. The first time was wonderful, but I really didn’t appreciate the opportunity due to my inexperience. Making the tournament for the second time in four years truly shows how impressive of a program coach Bennett and coach (Kyle) Smith have been able to build. Their tireless work and dedication has elevated SMC basketball to its highest point in it’s 100-year history.” Golden and fellow senior Tron Smith provided a steadying hand and competitive nature that complemented the youthful squad’s growth.
Bennett sent out the same starting five for all 32 games this season, a testament to the Gaels’ durability and consistency. “This team took the interest in Saint Mary’s basketball to a new level, both in the community and on the national scene,” Bennett says. “Our students and fans provided
us with a tremendous home-court advantage this past season. This group of players had a great connection with their fans and were great ambassadors for Saint Mary’s College in many ways.”
The Gaels built on an impressive non-conference résumé with wins over NCAA tourney clubs Oregon and Drake with a fierce round of WCC action. For fans, however, no season could be validated without crossing “Beat the Zags” from atop their wish lists. The Gael faithful got their chance in a packed McKeon on ESPN’s Big Monday on Feb. 4. In an emotionally charged overtime victory over Gonzaga, the Gaels validated their new status as a national power. The game also announced to casual fans across the country that the WCC is no longer a one-bid league. For the first time in its 55 years, the WCC had three teams invited to the Big Dance — the Gaels, Gonzaga and USD. Unfortunately, SMC exited after the first round, but hopes are high that they will return next year and go further.
Meanwhile, the WCC named Bennett Coach of the Year. Junior forward Diamon Simpson took the honors for Defensive Player of the Year and Mills was named Newcomer of the Year. The Gaels program now sets its sights on establishing a tradition of excellence in Moraga that will extend far into the future.