The Gaels’ Epic Turnaround Season Comes to an End in Spokane

West Coast Conference champs. A No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. Players and coach of the year. And a March Madness battle in which Saint Mary’s was bested by GCU 75–66.

by Ryan Barnett, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications | March 23, 2024

The opening round of the NCAA Tournament pitted against one another two of the premier mid-major West Coast basketball teams in the country, as the fifth-seeded West Coast Conference Champion Gaels (26–8) took on the 12th-seeded Western Athletic Conference Champion Grand Canyon Antelopes (30–4). It was the last game of matchups on Friday, March 22, at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The two teams locked in a tight contest for the first 20 minutes, and while the Lopes got off to a strong start in the second, the Gaels rallied to keep things close. At the final horn however, the early second half surge by GCU was too much for the Gaels to overcome, as they fell 75–66.  

Hard-fought First Half

The Gaels coughed the ball up on their first two possessions, but their signature defense kept the game close. The offense found their footing to the tune of three straight makes to take a 6–5 advantage, but the Gaels converted on just two of their next 15 field goal attempts. But where offense lacked, defense reigned supreme, and the Gaels broke out of their shooting slump to drain four in a row and regain the lead at 19–18 with 8:08 to go in the frame. 

Trading blow after physical blow, the two sides battled back and forth in a frame that saw two ties and 10 lead changes, and never saw a team trail by more than four. GCU took a 28–25 lead with 35 seconds left in the half, but Luke Barrett buried a 15 foot baseline jumper with five ticks to go, cutting the deficit to just one at the break. 

Mitchell Saxen led the Gaels with 10 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal. As a team, Saint Mary's scored 20 of their 27 points in the paint. Defensively, the Gaels held GCU to 16.7% shooting from three, and turned them over seven times, scoring seven points off of those turnovers. 

Men's basketball player Aidan Mahaney drives against GCU in 2024 NCAA Tournament
Ten points in the second half: Aidan Mahaney / Photo by Tod Fierner for SMC Athletics

Big Runs in the Second Half

The first big punch of the second half was thrown by the Lopes, as they outscored the Gaels 24–8 over the first 9:45 to take a commanding 52–35 lead. The Gaels fought back into the contest, going on a 17–5 run of their own to cut the deficit to five, but that was as close as they would get. 

Aidan Mahaney shook off a slow start to drop 10 in the second half. Luke Barrett added nine second half points, while Augustas Marciulionis had six points and six assists in the second frame. 

Men's basketball player Mason Forbes prepares to shoot against GCU in 2024 NCAA Tournament
Elven points and six rebounds: Mason Forbes / Photo by Tod Fierner for SMC Athletics

Mitchell Saxen was the driving force for the Gaels all game long, going for 14 points and 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season. Aidan Mahaney chipped in 13, playing 40 minutes to lead Saint Mary's. Mason Forbes and Luke Barrett each went for 11 points and six rebounds, shooting a combined 9–16 from the field. Rounding out the double digit scorers for the Gaels was Augustas Marciulionis, as he stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, five rebounds, eight assists, a steal, and a block. As a team, the Gaels reached 40 rebounds for the 15th time this season, and reached 20 assists for the eighth time. 

Double-Double “Mitch”ine

In leading the Gaels with 14 points and 11 boards, Mitchell Saxen racked up his seventh double-double of the year and the 15th of his season. For his career, the big man out of Seattle now sits at 963 career points scored and 648 rebounds, averaging 11.7 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game over the last two seasons. 

Men's basketball player Alex Ducas shoots against GCU in 2024 NCAA Tournament
Most games in a Gael uniform: Alex Ducas plays his 150th game / Photo by Tod Fierner for SMC Athletics

Ducas Earns a Place in the Record Books

The NCAA Tournament game was Alex Ducas' 150th game as a Gael, as he surpassed Tommy Kuhse for most games ever played in a Gael uniform. Ducas will have his name all over the Gaels history books, ranking 14th in scoring (1,353 points), ninth in field goals attempted (1,069), second in three point field goals made (278), second in three point field goals attempted (694), 11th in three point field goal percentage (40.1%), 10th in free throw percentage (82.8%), and tied second for most games started (123). 

Aidan Mahaney now ranks 14th in three points made (157) and 12th in three point field goals attempted (419). Mitchell Saxen is tied for fifth with 112 career blocked shots. Mason Forbes set the single season record for field goal percentage (69.4%). Mahaney’s 83 made threes this season ranked eighth for a single season in program history, while Ducas’ 81 ranked ninth. Mahaney's 234 attempted three pointers were second most ever by a Gael in a single season.

An Epic Turnaround Season

The Gaels put together an epic turnaround after a 3–5 start to the season. They won 23 of their final 26 games and earned a five seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year. It’s the first time in program history that Saint Mary’s has earned an NCAA Tournament bid three years in a row.

The Gaels won both the regular season and conference tournament titles for the first time since 2012. Augustas Marciulionis was named both WCC Player of the Year and WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player. In that, he follows in the footsteps of Gael Matthew Dellavedova, in 2012. 

Mitchell Saxen was named WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Aidan Mahaney was named first team All-WCC, Alex Ducas was named second team All-WCC, and Joshua Jefferson was named honorable mention All-WCC. Randy Bennett was named WCC Coach of the Year for the sixth time in his career. His record now stands at 533–216 through 23 years at the helm of the Saint Mary's program. 

Two Saint Mary's students cheer for the Gaels in the 2024 NCAA Tournament
Let's go Gaels! Cheering on the team from the watch party in Dryden Hall and the 1928 Pub / Photo by Francis Tatem

Cheering on the Gaels from Campus—and Across the Country

For the NCAA Tournament, along with fans and supporters who cheered on the Gaels at the arena in Spokane and turned out for a pregame rally, back in Moraga hundreds of members of the Gael community gathered in Dryden Hall and the 1928 Pub for a campus watch party. There were students and alumni, faculty and staff, friends and members of the wider community. (Those watching the broadcast no doubt caught a few shots of the crowd roaring after the Gaels scored some big baskets, courtesy a live feed from campus broadcast by CBS as well as local broadcasters KPIX and KRON4.)

And all across the nation Gaels gathered for more than a dozen watch parties: from Boston to Seattle, Chicago to Denver, Fort Worth to Fresno, throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and down the California coast. We’re thankful to the fans across here at home and across the country for a great season, and for the support they have shown along the way.

Go Gaels! Game and Fan Celebration in Photos

The season may not have ended the way the Gaels wanted. But Saint Mary's fans have been there to cheer them on along the way. Here are a few scenes from the arena, pre-game party, and campus watch party.

Game photos by Tod Fierner for SMC Athletics. SMC watch party photos by Francis Tatem. Spokane pre-game party photos by Bryan Navarro.