All the talk leading up to the West Coast Conference final between Gonzaga and Saint Mary's focused on how much the Gaels would need this victory. Anywhere from "they're fine without it" to "they're in trouble with a loss" depending on which bracketologist you happened to be listening to at that particular moment. But at the end of the game at Orleans Arena there was a rather emphatic message from Randy Bennett's team:
Save that bubble talk for someone else.
Of course no such words came out of the mouths of anyone involved but how else do you explain the second half run Saint Mary's went on in beating the Bulldogs 81-62 for the WCC crown? Omar Samhan may have scored just nine points but that's OK when Mickey McConnell (26 points) and Ben Allen (20 points, nine rebounds) play the way that they did on Monday night. And while a technical foul is never a good thing, the senior center likely gave his team a little more fire in bumping into Robert Sacre in the second half with the score SMC 46-40.
McConnell and Allen helped lead the Gaels on an 18-7 run that decided the outcome, and Saint Mary's did a better job in two areas that had an impact in their two regular season losses to Gonzaga. They held their own on the boards (30 rebounds apiece) and also won the turnover battle, handing the ball over just eight times to Gonzaga's fourteen. Steven Gray led the Bulldogs, who may have lost the chance to play their first two NCAA Tournament games at Spokane Arena, with sixteen points but freshman forward Elias Harris was 3-for-13 from the field.
Those fourteen Gonzaga turnovers were converted into eighteen points by the Gaels, who won the WCC Tournament crown for just the second time since the event began in 1987. Freshman Jorden Page added eleven points off the bench in the victory while Matt Bouldin scored fourteen points for Gonzaga. Did this win snatch a bid away from a team sitting on the bubble? Maybe, but it also could have save the Gaels from a repeat of last year's finish.
Three Key Happenings
1. Siena survives a tough Fairfield squad to win their 3rd straight MAAC crown. Few people expected any game in the Saints' run to a third consecutive MAAC title to be as difficult as Monday night's final turned out to be. While Fran McCaffery's bunch did trail at the half in games against Manhattan and Rider, a quick second half run was all they needed to put both away. No such folding from Ed Cooley's Stags, who took an eleven-point lead into the locker room at the half (39-28) and led by as many as fifteen points behind the play of Derek Needham (16 points) and Anthony Johnson (14 points, 13 rebounds). But the veteran Saints showed their championship mettle in fighting back into the game, and the tactical move at the end of regulation to put those fouls to give to good use was nothing short of brilliant.
In the extra session it was time for senior swingman Edwin Ubiles, who struggled in the first two games of the tournament, to make his presence known. Ubiles had six points in the extra session as Siena held off the Stags 72-65. Siena shouldn't be an unknown commodity given their success in the last two NCAA appearances, whipping Vanderbilt (2008) and edging Ohio State in double overtime (2009). But the experience and skill of players such as Ubiles, tournament MVP Alex Franklin (22 points, 12 rebounds), Ronald Moore (nine points, six assists) and Ryan Rossiter (10 points, 12 rebounds) makes this a tough team to knock out.
2. Old Dominion will be a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. Why will Blaine Taylor's Monarchs be a tough out? They've got the size and depth that allows them to adjust to a variety of styles; eight players played at least fifteen minutes in Monday's 60-53 win over William & Mary. This was an awkward game for ODU, who was taking on one of the best three-point shooting teams in the CAA. But they essentially took away the bonus shot, limiting the Tribe to 9-for-31 from behind the arc for the game. Tony Shaver's team was able to get back into the game by working the ball inside but the Monarchs had done such a good job of defending the three that it was too little too late.
Gerald Lee was named MOP of the CAA Tournament with an average of 17.3 ppg over the weekend but offensively it was a balanced effort (as it has been all season) that earned ODU their first NCAA berth since 2005. All five starters scored at least eight points, while William & Mary's David Schneider made just two of thirteen field goal attempts on the night. Danny Sumner led the Tribe with nineteen but with Schneider and Quinn McDowell (3-for-8, 9 pts) off from the field the Monarchs were simply too much. Coach Taylor has a team that rebounds and defends well, and combined the versatility of their offense ODU is a name that few teams want to see come up immediately after theirs on Selection Sunday.
3. Ignore the Wofford Terriers at your own peril. If you're looking for a team with the ability to sneak up on opponents in the NCAA Tournament, Wofford may be a good choice. When most people think of the Southern Conference they think Davidson or Charleston. Western Carolina and Appalachian State both made their mark this season but nationally it was a case of "out of sight, out of mind" when it came to the teams on top of the league. And if someone does that with the Terriers next week they're likely headed home when the game ends. This a very good basketball team that will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance as a Division I member and has a school-record 26 wins. Cameron Rundles led the way Monday night with 20 points but it was the defense that was the story in their 56-51 win over Appalachian State.
Wofford held the Mountaineers to 29% shooting and harassed leading scorer Donald Sims into shooting 2-for-15 from the field for just nine points. "They just did a really good job of taking us out of everything we wanted to do offensively and knocked us off our cuts," said Appalachian State head coach Buzz Peterson. "We couldn't get by them on dribble penetration. They did one heck of a job on the defensive end." Mike Young's team will make opponents work for everything they get offensively, and with the likes of Rundles and Noah Dahlman this is a team that can run their sets efficiently on the other end. The best team in the SoCon all year long, Wofford is a team that can pop up and surprise someone given the right matchup.
Top Three Games
1. Siena 72, Fairfield 65 (OT) See above.
2. Wofford 56, Appalachian State 51 See above.
3. IUPUI 69, Oral Roberts 65 Robert Glenn led three Jaguars in double figures with 18 points (seven rebounds) as Ron Hunter's team sealed a date in the Summit League final opposite regular season champ Oakland.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Edwin Ubiles (Siena) The senior saved his best performance of the weekend for the final, scoring 27 points in the Saints' 72-65 overtime victory over Fairfield.
2. G Mickey McConnell (Saint Mary's) McConnell scored 26 points in the Gaels' 81-62 win over Gonzaga for the WCC title. Also, Ben Allen added 20 points and nine rebounds.
3. C Keith Benson (Oakland) There's been some buzz among NBA types in regards to Benson and he showed why Monday night. Keith scored 17 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the Grizzlies' 71-58 win over IPFW.