DAYTON, Ohio -- When Middle Tennessee cut what was a 10-point lead to three points midway through the second half, Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett called time out and brought the team together.
Bennett talked about getting back on defense, not allowing Middle Tennessee to get points in transition. He didn't talk about staying calm or keeping composure, or not to get blinded by the bright lights of the NCAA tournament.
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Why? The Gaels have already been here before, they already know how to respond to runs and they know how to win NCAA tournament games.
That experience helped Saint Mary's weather the storm and pull away down the stretch for a 67-54 win over Middle Tennessee. The Gaels advanced to play Memphis in the Round of 64 on Thursday.
“It definitely helps that we had a little bit of experience in the tournament,” said senior guard Matthew Dellavedova, who finished with 22 points. “The main thing that sort of helped our guys out there was just like the travel and all the other stuff that kind of goes with it.”
A major factor for Saint Mary's was its ability to take care of the ball and not allow Middle Tennessee to turn errors into easy baskets at the other end. The Blue Raiders constantly switched defenses. But aside from the run in the second half, the Gaels were able to figure everything out quickly.
“We've seen pretty much all of the defenses that teams could throw at us throughout the year,” Dellavedova said. “So I think we've got good stuff in place. I think that helps.”
Heading into Tuesday night, the top seven minute-getters for Saint Mary's had all played in at least one NCAA tournament game. Dellavedova and Mitchell Young had four under their belts, including two wins during their freshman year. Because Saint Mary's is such a veteran team, it's hard for opponents to get them out of control and out of sync.
On Thursday, the Gaels will go up against Memphis, the No. 6 seed in the Midwest region. The Tigers are faster and more athletic than Saint Mary's, but the Gaels have a massive edge in experience.
That could pay off for Saint Mary's, which has had trouble with Memphis-type speed at times this season.
“The number one thing is taking the transition away, which is what we had to do tonight,” Bennett said. “The keys on Middle Tennessee were taking away transition, don't give them second shots and then taking care of the ball. So I think it's the same.
“It's pretty much the same game plan.”
Saint Mary's did a fine job forcing its style and pace on Middle Tennessee, not allowing the Blue Raiders to get into much of a rhythm. But Memphis is a different animal. Joe Jackson is extremely fast, and Geron Johnson is strong and athletic. Adonis Thomas and D.J. Stephens are difficult matchups as well, while Shaq Goodwin and Tarik Black are tough down low if they stay out of foul trouble.
Can the Gaels keep up despite not being as fast or athletic?
“We know if we play our game, we'll be able to make it a good game,” Levesque said. “When it comes to the tournament, it doesn't matter what your seed is -- 6 or 11. We feel we can compete with anybody.”
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