MORAGA, Calif. – Last season, Saint Mary’s knew it was good enough to challenge for an NCAA tournament berth. It had a slew of marquee juniors and a wealth of experience. It had played a challenging non-conference schedule, going up against Cal, UCLA and Oregon. They’d beaten the Ducks and taken down perennial conference power Gonzaga at home.
So when the Gaels slumped to a couple bad losses near the end of West Coast Conference play, including a crushing 13-point defeat at Pepperdine on the regular season’s final day that ended their NCAA hopes, there was a profound sense of disappointment.
They held nothing against the WNIT — in fact, the Gaels would make a stirring run to the quarterfinals before falling to Utah — it was simply an indication of where they wanted this program to go.
Fast-forward to the first game of this season, when Saint Mary’s faced a Washington team with NCAA tournament aspirations of its own. Those Gaels juniors had become seniors, and their hunger had mixed with experience to devastating effect. The Gaels beat the Huskies 91-81 at home.
Gaels head coach Paul Thomas said the preparation for the current campaign began almost immediately after last year's loss to the Utes. He knew that he had three tremendous seniors coming back. He knew his team was talented enough to hang with anyone in the country. What he didn’t expect was to win this year's opener in a shootout.
“It was fun,” Thomas said, “but that’s not how we’re going to get to the NCAA tournament. But I’m super proud of [my players]. They did a really good job executing in the final five minutes of the game.”
Saint Mary's seniors Jackie Nared, Kate Gaze and Danielle Mauldin were extraordinary against the Huskies, combining for 77 of the team’s 91 points and pouring in the final 28 of the contest. Nared recorded a game and career-high 37 points, adding 11 rebounds for the double-double. Mauldin also doubled up with an impressive 23 points to go with her career-high-tying 17 rebounds, and Gaze contributed a guard's double with 17 points and 10 assists.
“We knew we could play with this team, and we were better,” said Gaze. “It was just about finding consistency — we couldn’t string a couple good defensive stops together. But toward the end we did that. Now, we need to work on staying disciplined the whole game.”
As part of their game strategy, the Gael's endeavor to make more free throws than their opponent attempts. They fell short on Friday against the Huskies, finishing with 13 points in 23 trips to the line, while Washington netted 14-of-25 at the stripe. The Gaels pride themselves on making a high percentage of their foul shots — last season, they shot 74 percent from the line. On Friday night, they missed 10, good for a 57-percent average.
They want to shut down opponents on defense, but they struggled for most of the game to contain Washington’s dribble-drives and kick-out threes, most often instigated by the Huskies’ phenomenal pair of guards, junior Jazmine Davis and freshman Kelsey Plum, who posted a team-high-tying 23 points in her collegiate debut.
But perhaps that’s the best way to view this acid-test of a season opener — on a night on which they struggled to impose their brand of basketball, the Gaels still found a way to win. That’s tournament-level stuff.
They offset their deficiencies with staunch rebounding (50-34 advantage) and flawless execution down the stretch. This team never believes it is out of a game.
That confidence flows from the senior leadership. Saint Mary’s trailed Washington for most of the contest, and saw their deficit run to as many as 10 points with just a sliver over eight minutes remaining in regulation. Thomas is loathe to call timeout just before a media break, but on this occasion he broke his rule. He wanted to remind his team of something.
With the huddle gathered around him, Thomas stressed the importance of help-side defense against the dribble-happy Davis and Plum. “They are really, really good guards, and they hurt us the whole game,” Thomas said. “[Washington does] a really good job of spreading you out; that’s a good team that can really shoot the ball. That puts extreme pressure on us defending the ball. I wanted to re-emphasize, four times over, that our help-side defense had to come over and stop those drives.”
Just before that timeout, Davis went down with an injury to her left foot, and would not return. Plum had burst out of the gate with 14 first-half points, her hot shooting met by Davis’s 23 points, and three-point specialist Heather Corrall’s 15.
But the Gaels heeded their coach’s advice after that timeout, and clamped down on defense. Plum missed her final six shots; Washington simply struggled to score. Then, the seniors, whom Thomas calls the team’s “bread and butter,” took over.
Perhaps the most emphatic of Nared's near-school record 37 points came on a 3-pointer to put Saint Mary’s up 81-77 with just over 4 minutes to go. “That was awesome,” Nared said of her shot. “We were doing the little things that make a great team, we were stopping their initial drives so they couldn’t get so many easy points. I think that’s what got us the win.”
|Jackie Nared's career-high 37 points in Friday's opener fell just one short of Saint Mary's all-time school record for points scored in a single game. (Photo by Katya Litvinenko/SMC Athletics)|
The unfazed Gaze shook off five turnovers to hit two huge threes of her own in that final stretch. Washington had pulled to 81-79 after Nared's trey, but on the next offensive possession Gaze drove for a reverse layup, which she missed.
But no matter. Mauldin snatched the offensive board and picked out Gaze at the top of the key. The guard from Melbourne, Australia coolly stepped into her shot and nailed it.
With just over a minute remaining, Gaze sealed the game by picking out Nared’s backdoor cut from the right wing with a perfectly-threaded one-hand bounce pass to Nared for the lay-up. On the ensuing defensive possession, Gaze drew a charge. The crowd rose to its feet; the Gaels were on their way.
“When we went down by 10 points, everything kind of clicked,” Gaze said. “We knew we needed to dig back, and it was good to see that we weathered our early mistakes. We know that to get to the NCAAs, we have to make some big changes from last year. We’re on the same page; we just needed to play our game.”
The key now, Thomas said, will be for the rest of the Gaels' lineup to provide some production in addition to the seniors’ exploits. “It’s the job of these three seniors to make our other players better.”
If the veteran trio continue to lead by the example they set against Washington, the Gaels could go a long way this season.
Saturday's Top-25 Results
There wasn't a close contest to be found in Saturday's Top-25 match-ups, several of which were little more than warm-ups for Monday's nationally televised shootouts between the "big dogs." The Veteran's Day line-up, featuring No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Stanford (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2), No. 4 Tennessee @ No. 12/11 North Carolina (9 p.m. EST, ESPNU), and No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 20/18 Michigan State (not nationally televised), will see at least three of the Top 25 pick up their first losses. But on Saturday, there were nothing but "W"s collected in a series of lopsided mismatches:
- No. 1 Connecticut 89, Hartford 34. Moriah Jefferson registered a career-high 17 points and center Stefanie Dolson added 16 on near-perfect shooting (seven-of-eight) that included two-of-two from beyond the arc to lead UConn in its annual drubbing of Husky alum Jennifer Rizzotti's Hartford Hawks.
- No. 3 Stanford 83, Boston College 71. The Cardinal got off to a slow start they can ill afford come Monday, trailing 18-13 early on, but once they got their feet under them, they took off on a 28-0 first-half run that saw them up, 41-18, by the break, and cruised home from there. National Player of the Year candidate Chiney Ogwumike led the way with a 30-point, 14-board double-double and Amber Orrange just missed posting Stanford's first-ever triple double, finishing with 19 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. Kristen Doherty put up 16 points and Shayra Brown scored 10 for the Eagles, who outscored Stanford 47-42 in the second stanza as every Cardinal player saw action.
- No. 5 Louisville 101, Loyola Chicago 54. The Cardinals easily advanced into the second round in Saturday's only Preseason WNIT pairing. Bria Smith, with 16 points, led six Louisville players in double figures, leading head coach Jeff Walz to describe this year's edition as his deepest squad to date. The game was noteworthy for two reasons: Shoni Shimmel's (11 points) third triple of the day (she went three-for-six from beyond the arc) broke the school's all-time record for made 3-pointers (272), and the game marked the coaching debut of WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes at Loyola. Taylor Johnson posted 18 points to lead Swoopes' Ramblers. The Cardinals will host Quinnipiac Monday night in the second round of the Preseason WNIT.
- No. 6/7 Notre Dame 99, UNC Wilmington 50. The youngsters came up big for the Irish, as sophomores Jewel Loyd and Michaela Mabrey, the latter coming off the bench, led the way with 19 points apiece. Starters Kayla McBride added 17 and Lindsay Allen 11, but the starting rotation saw limited action as the bench took care of business. Junior guard Kelva Atkins, the lone returning starter, posted 16 points and Brie Mobley added 11 for the Seahawks.
- No. 10 Baylor 110, Grambling State 55. The Lady Bears took the first "W" of the 2013-14 season, extended their nation's best home winning streak to 58 games, and with it, captured Saturday's "Golden Powder-Puff" prize for most embarrassing scheduling, in a total rout of Grambling. Odyssey Sims led five Baylor players in double figures with 28 points. The Tigers, led by Victoya Ricks' 14 points, had four double-digit scorers of their own, but achieved that on volume shooting, finding the bottom of the cylinder on just 29.9 percent (20-67) of their attempts from the field.
- No. 14/16 Dayton 89, UC Riverside 54. The Flyers opened their season in Iowa City at the annual Hawkeye Challenge, where they soared past UC Riverside behind a career-high-tying 20 points on nine-for-10 shooting from junior Ally Malott, who added four boards, three assists and two blocks to the day's tally. Amber Deane added a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) and three other Flyers contributed double-digit efforts. Natasha Hadley (13 points) and Kiara Harewood (12 points, nine rebounds) paced the Highlanders.
- Huskers humble Bruins in opening day action
- 2013-14 PAC 12 women's basketball preview: Cardinal picked to win conference; others threaten