Gaels Win! Saint Mary’s Beats VCU to Advance to Second Round of NCAA Tournament
SMC comes on strong in second half to power their way to a 63–51 victory. They face UConn on Sunday, March 19.
ABOVE: Alex Ducas celebrates after shooting three points in the first half. Photo by John Minchillo/AP
Saint Mary's Men's Basketball entered the 2023 NCAA Tournament as a five seed, the second season in a row the Gaels have been on the five line. All week long, they heard that the most popular 5 vs. 12 upset was their matchup against VCU, as the Rams are a heavy defensive team like SMC. It certainly played out like two teams who are strong on the defensive side, but the Gaels got enough offense in the second half to power their way past VCU by a final of 63–51.
Saint Mary's will play in the second round on Sunday against University of Connecticut, who defeated Iona in the first round on Friday.
The way the game began, it looked like neither team was really in their groove on the offensive side. Saint Mary's struggled to make shots, opening the game just one for nine from the floor, but VCU couldn't capitalize and build the lead up beyond a few points.
The total numbers in the first half were not pretty for the Gaels, who shot just 36 percent from the floor in the first half and were a dismal 1 for 11 from beyond the arc. They had multiple stretches of scoreless droughts, but they rebounded well, finishing the first half plus-ten on the boards. Even while the shooting percentage was low, the Gaels led 29–28 at the break, thanks to a 6–0 run over the final two minutes.
The Help They Needed
Saint Mary's never had a run longer than five points in the second half, but they were able to use enough of those runs to build a larger lead in the second half. The numbers were much improved across the board, with the Gaels shooting 47 percent in the second half.
With 12:50 left in the game, Kyle Bowen found a layup from left of the baseline and was fouled in the process; after his three-point play, the Gaels led by seven. They pushed it double-digits for the first time with 8:53 left when Alex Ducas hit a layup inside, and after eight made free throws in the final eight minutes, the Gaels had all they needed.
Up High, Down Low
The X-factor on Friday afternoon was Mitchell Saxen, who played one of his best games of the season. He scored 17 points, including 10 in the first half, while shooting an impressive 8–11 from the floor. Over his prior five games, Saxen had averaged just 9.2 points per game.
VCU had no answer for Saxen in the paint, struggling to contain the Gaels’ big man, who went in for multiple wide-open dunks. The Gaels also got a performance they needed from Ducas, who tied Saxen for a Gaels-best 17 points. Ducas also was a force on the board, with eight rebounds. His threat from beyond the arc turned into several layup opportunities, and trips to the line, where he was 6 for 7.
Saint Patrick’s Day 2023 by the Numbers
Logan Johnson recorded his first collegiate double-double, finishing the game with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Augustas Marciulionis played 22 minutes off the bench and responded well, with 13 points, including 6 for 8 from the charity stripe.
Saint Mary’s held VCU to just six made baskets in the second half. The 51 total points VCU scored is their fewest in a game this year.
VCU typically forces more than 16 turnovers per game. The Gaels had just 12 to pair with 13 assists.
Saint Mary's is now 3–0 all-time on St. Patrick's Day in the NCAA Tournament. That only seems right, given that the Gaels take their name from Irish warriors, representing the power of passion and hard work. Legend has it that in the 1920s famous sportswriter Grantland Rice named Saint Mary's “the Gaels” because there were so many Irish guys on the squad.
This is the first win in the eastern time zone for the Gaels since winning at Dayton on November 19, 2016.
This is the first time in program history that Saint Mary's moves onto the second round of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons.
The Roar in Moraga…and Albany
Saint Mary’s students gathered in Dryden Hall and the 1928 pub for a March Madness watch party. For most of the first half, as the score seesawed, you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. At the top of the second half, when the Gaels scored a 3-pointer, the home crowd exploded. And it only got louder from there.
As announcers for TBS noted before the game, the Gaels traveled farther than any other team for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That didn't stop Gaels fans from showing up at the MVP Arena in Albany as well. The Spirit Team and the Pep Band—who have been featured in CBS March Madness Confidential—were there to bring Gael momentum back east.
Gaels in Their Own Words
"The heart of the deal is we both really take a lot of pride in our defense. I thought it would be a gritty, tough game to score, and it was for us. Didn't shoot it well first half. Second half Saxen did a great job inside … Alex [Ducas] was good the whole way. That's kind of where we had the edge. I thought we'd beat them inside. Both teams have good guards. It was a gritty game, and we just kind of outlasted them a little bit and got a little separation and were able to hang on."
— Head Coach Randy Bennett
"The way they covered their pick-and-rolls a little bit was showing hard with their bigs. We knew, if I roll hard and made myself available, we could get good post position inside. We hadn't been playing the best against that type of coverage. Gonzaga did it really well against us. So we knew coming in we had to be really assertive there and make a concerted effort to get it inside, which we did."
— Mitchell Saxen, Center
Up Next: UConn
Saint Mary's moves onto the second round of the NCAA Tournament where they play No. 4 UConn after their victory over Iona.
Tip-off time is at 6:10 p.m. Eastern / 3:10 p.m. Pacific.
Story updated March 18 at 4 p.m. Reporting from SMC campus by Sam Nobile ’23.
READ AND WATCH MORE:
March Madness Confidential Features Saint Mary’s
Washington Post columnist John Feinstein takes a deep dive with SMC guard Augustas Marciulionis: With a rapping Australian and a Hall of Famer’s son, Saint Mary’s marches on
San Francisco Chronicle Connor Letourneau reporter recaps the game: Mitchell Saxen leads St. Mary’s to win over VCU in NCAA Tournament
San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Our time’: Will Saint Mary’s finally break through in the NCAA Tournament?