If defense truly does win championships, Saint Mary’s is doing all it can to make a case to be in the national title conversation.
The fifth-seeded Gaels put together a stunning defensive performance in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They will look to bring the same intensity Sunday when they face fourth-seeded UConn at Albany, N.Y., in a second-round matchup in the West Region.
Saint Mary’s (27-7) locked up VCU on Friday, forcing 14 turnovers while holding the Rams to 36.7 percent shooting from the field in a 63-51 victory. The Gaels were even more in tune defensively following halftime, as VCU canned just 6 of 27 (22.2 percent) shots in the second half.
The blueprint for the Gaels’ defense was developed three seasons ago and has been refined ever since.
“Our only chance in games that year was to really defend. That’s when we started developing the gritty thing,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said about the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. “Last year it started paying off.
“No matter what, the defense should travel with us, and it did tonight. I usually feel pretty confident that we’ll do a good job on them defensively, and we did. That’s what won us the game.”
The Gaels figure to have their hands full on Sunday against Adama Sanogo.
Sanogo shined on Friday as the Huskies (26-8) cruised to an 87-63 win over Iona. The junior big man finished with game highs of 28 points and 13 rebounds and teamed with guard Jordan Hawkins to account for all of the scoring during a 17-4 second-half run that shifted momentum in UConn’s favor.
Center Donovan Clingan (12 points, nine rebounds) also played an important role off the bench, and Huskies coach Danny Hurley knows his frontcourt is going to have to bring their best against an experienced Saint Mary’s squad.
“They’re an older team, they’re physical,” Hurley said. “We know that surviving Sunday is going to be an absolute war and a dogfight. But our centers have been really good this year when we’ve been really good.”
Hurley is also banking on the UConn faithful making the two-plus hour trek from Storrs, Conn., to Albany to show their support.
“Obviously, we know what we’re in for when you have a (No. 4) seed and a (No. 5) seed, with very little separation between the two teams,” Hurley said. “The crowd will swell by Sunday. A lot more Husky fans will enter the building.”
Friday’s win marked the Huskies’ first in an NCAA Tournament since 2016. But now UConn will attempt to end a Sweet 16 drought, something that Saint Mary’s has become all too familiar with.
While the Huskies have not gone past the second round since their national title run in 2014, the Gaels haven’t gotten a taste of the Sweet 16 since 2010.
Bennett coached that 2010 team that came within one win of the Elite Eight, and his players are determined to help him get back to the regional semifinals.
“Coach has been to a Sweet 16 before, and we plan on making another one,” Saint Mary’s guard/forward Alex Ducas said.
–Field Level Media