Published March 23rd, 2016
After NCAA Snub, Gaels Move Closer to NIT Final
By Dean Boerner
Emmett Naar Photo Tod Fierner
Saint Mary's had one of their best seasons in a decade, but it wasn't good enough to earn a spot in NCAA tournament. Instead, the 27-5 Gaels, who won a WCC regular season co-championship, are settling for a berth in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
The Gaels privately watched Selection Sunday unfold on in the Soda Activity Center next to McKeon Pavilion. Not hearing their name called for college basketball's biggest moment elicited feelings of both dejection and acceptance.
"We knew we were on the bubble, and it could've gone either way," said sophomore guard Emmett Naar. "But to not make it after what we thought was such a good year is obviously really disappointing."
Saint Mary's never lost two games in a row, and their only unjustifiable defeats came in two regular season losses to a middling Pepperdine team. Other than those two blemishes, the Gaels' only other losses came to BYU, Gonzaga and Cal. In fact, they beat Gonzaga twice during the regular season for the first time in more than 20 years.
"Honestly if I was trying to explain why we are not in, I really couldn't," said head coach Randy Bennett. "What else could we have done?"
In the WCC postseason tournament, the Gaels advanced rather easily to the finals for a third and final showdown with rival Gonzaga on March 8. Had Saint Mary's defeated the Bulldogs, they would have been awarded an automatic bid as conference tournament champions. In that matchup though, Gonzaga shot a scorching-hot 62 percent, guaranteeing them a coveted berth in the dance.
Even after the loss, the Gaels still had a decent chance. Along with their stellar record, they boasted top 40 rankings in both BPI and RPI, two metrics used heavily by the selection committee in weighing postseason resumes.
Nevertheless, the Gaels were vying with a host of other at-large teams for a few available spots, and it ended up being larger schools like Tulsa, Syracuse, and Vanderbilt who were selected.
Bennett, whose last trip to the NCAA tournament occurred in 2013, didn't appear too troubled by the results and began looking forward to NIT play.
"The teams that play in the NIT are just like us," Bennett said. "They're teams that could have easily been in the NCAA tournament and didn't get the nod. The NIT is a really good tournament."
The Gaels were deemed as the fourth-best team in the West Coast Conference prior to the season, so by every measure they have both defied and exceeded expectations all without a single senior on their roster. Guard Joe Rahon, one of just three juniors on the squad, will have another shot at reaching the tournament with his teammates next season. He also found no difficulty looking on the bright side.
"You're first reaction is disappointment," said the All-Conference player. "But your next reaction is, Hey, we get to play another game in front of our home crowd and we get to play in a great NIT tournament."
In the opening round of the NIT tournament, the No. 2 seed Gaels played sluggishly against the seven-seeded New Mexico St. Aggies. Saint Mary's held a modest 31-26 lead at halftime and built a considerable 45-32 lead several minutes into the half, but New Mexico St. clawed their way back. A stagnant Saint Mary's offense and a flurry of turnovers allowed New Mexico St. to tie the game at 56. Luckily for the Gaels, an ill-advised foul brought Joe Rahon to the line with less than two seconds remaining. He would knock down both free throws down to secure a 58-56 Gaels win and berth into the second round.
On Sunday night, the Gaels defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 77-65, advancing to the NIT quarterfinals. They will travel to Valparaiso, Ind. Tuesday to play the Valparaiso Crusaders for a chance to compete in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden (New York City) this weekend.

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