No. 17 Saint Mary’s has won 14 of its last 15 games but is suddenly struggling to protect big leads.
The Gaels have sprung leaks in two of their past three games and will look to plug them up when they host BYU in West Coast Conference play on Saturday night in Moraga, Calif.
First-place Saint Mary’s (23-5, 12-1 WCC) led by 23 points with under 12 minutes to play on Thursday night before escaping with a 62-59 road victory over lowly San Diego. The Toreros scored the final 13 points as part of a 24-4 game-ending run.
Two games earlier, the Gaels were up by as many as 16 points before blowing the lead and falling 78-74 in overtime to host Loyola Marymount.
Guard Augustas Marciulionis said there are lessons to decipher. But this time, he was glad Saint Mary’s left the gym victorious.
“I think for 25 to 30 minutes we had a really good game,” Marciulionis said after the win over the Toreros. “We have to learn from this. If it happens in other games in the future, and we go without scoring for seven or eight minutes, we know we have to guard and keep looking for our shots.”
The Gaels missed their final 10 shots against San Diego. Mitchell Saxen’s basket with 10:20 left marked Saint Mary’s last field goal and made it 60-40. Two free throws by Saxen with 7:05 left were the Gaels’ final points.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was not happy with how his team closed out the contest.
“Not very good offensively,” Bennett said. “They did a good job. They kept believing, kept hustling. We did not do a good job down the stretch. Turnovers, missing shots, missing free throws.”
The Gaels are 14-2 at home as they look to complete a regular-season sweep of BYU (16-13, 6-8).
Saint Mary’s squeaked out a 57-56 road victory on Jan. 28 in the first meeting when Aidan Mahaney knocked down a 15-foot turnaround jumper with 0.4 seconds left.
That heartbreaking loss was part of a stretch in which the Cougars have dropped six of eight games, including their last three.
BYU coach Mark Pope will be looking for an improved showing after his team’s demoralizing 81-74 home loss to Santa Clara on Thursday.
The Cougars trailed 47-30 at halftime and were later behind by 20 while being outplayed by the Broncos.
“Super disappointing outcome,” Pope said afterward. “It was a super disappointing first half. I was proud of the guys for having some fight in the second half. We just have to get better in 100 different ways.”
Rudi Williams scored 20 points against Santa Clara to reach the 20-point mark for the sixth time this season. He had just two points in 14 minutes in the recent loss to Saint Mary’s.
Williams (12.4 points per game) ranks second on the club in scoring behind Fousseyni Traore (12.9), who had 13 points and 10 rebounds against the Broncos for his seventh double-double of the season. Traore also leads BYU in rebounding at 7.9 per outing.
Dallin Hall, who averages 7.3 points per game, scored a career-best 23 points in the one-point loss to Saint Mary’s.
The closeness of the first contest provides Pope with hope that his team will be up for the task in the rematch.
“I have so much confidence in this group,” Pope said. “I have every expectation that we’ll go down there and rise to the challenge by meeting their competitive level. We’ll keep growing and learning, that’s what we’re about.”
–Field Level Media