The ghost of these four letters does not scare them. Neither does the name John Wooden.
Those 11 national championships? They might as well have happened a lifetime ago — and did, considering no one on St. Mary’s list was alive the last time UCLA stood in college basketball.
If you want an idea of how intimidated the Gaels might be against one of the sport’s bluebloods when they take on the Bruins in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday afternoon at the Moda Center, think about what they did at their have done kick-off after the season.
The tiny Bay Area Catholic school that never made it past the Sweet 16 defeated five-time national champion Indiana. With 29 points. It was the Hoosiers’ biggest loss in an otherwise proud NCAA tournament history.
That can happen when your veteran lineup is unwavering, you defend the rim and three-pointer with equal passion, and your resume includes a recent win over frontrunner Gonzaga.
“That’s real confidence,” said St Mary’s manager Randy Bennett, whose fifth-seeded Gaels (26-7) believe they have tied fourth-seeded Bruins (26-7) for the teams’ identical records be on an equal footing. “You talk about confidence, sometimes people gush and pretend they’re confident, but they’re not. When you beat a good team like Gonzaga… it’s real.
“After that, we just feel like anybody we play against is not going to be more talented than them, not better coached than them, not going to be a better team than them. If you can beat them, you feel like you can play with anyone.”
St. Mary’s gave the Bulldogs their only loss of the season at the West Coast Conference in late February, thanks in part to a player who formerly named Mick Cronin his coach. Guard Logan Johnson, one of the Gaels’ three senior starters, played for Cronin at Cincinnati as a freshman before Cronin left for UCLA and Johnson for St. Mary’s.
“That’s my type,” Cronin said of a player who went on to be selected for the All-West Coast Conference first-team. “I love him very much and his whole family.”
The somber Gaels are full of feel-good stories aside from their usual line-up of agreeable Aussies, point guard Tommy Kuhse-turned-walk-on-to-1,000-point scorer, and big man Matthias Tass, who scored the first four doubles this season -Double recorded in his career.
The pre-match shirts worn by the players saying ‘No Quit’ are no false advertisement, the Gaels appear to be gaining strength as the game progressed while outpacing their opponents by a total of 186 points in the second half. They also give up just 60.3 game points, the fewest in Bennett’s 21 seasons at the school.
Cronin said he once encouraged Bennett to leave his longtime post to seek greater resources and success.
“What’s been accomplished at St. Mary’s is a modern marvel because he takes guys like that and turns them into players and it just never stops,” Cronin said, alluding to Bennett’s fame among others being NBA player Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova. “I used to say to Randy, ‘You gotta get out of there, what are you doing?’ … because I always think he can’t pull that out anymore. It’s like winning five card poker in a game of seven card stud and he just keeps getting better with player development.”
Bennett has only made it out of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament once, advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2010 before falling to Baylor. His current team no longer fits the brave underdog trope as the Gaels have earned the highest seeding in school history.
UCLA guard Jules Bernard compared St. Mary’s to Pac-12 rival Washington State because of the Gaels’ quick, smart guards who thrive in hard-to-defend pick-and-rolls.
“As a defensive team,” said Bruins warden Jaime Jaquez Jr., “we have to do everything we can to disrupt them and get them out of their system.”
After nearly stumbling in the first round a season after reaching the Final Four, the Bruins know their length of stay postseason will depend largely on shooting more than their 35.2% against the feisty Akron. That could be a chore against the Gaels, who are holding Indiana at 34% while leading by as much as 34 points.
Given their in-state proximity, UCLA and St. Mary’s seem like natural complements to each other’s non-conference schedules. But they haven’t faced each other since Tracy Murray, now a UCLA radio analyst, scored 24 points during the Bruins’ 123-93 romp on Dec. 5, 1990.
Bennett said he’d like to schedule UCLA as part of a home-and-home, or neutral site, arrangement, but Cronin might not readily agree given what happened the last time he traveled to Moraga.
“He talked me into coming out,” Cronin said, referring to a 75-62 loss to Bennett’s Gaels in December 2004 during Cronin’s second season at Murray State. “I went to Claim Jumpers there in Moraga afterwards and he was there with the three officers.”
Everyone in the interview room laughed. Then Cronin’s crooked smile disappeared, a nod to the little school with a great determination to kill the next giant.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-03-19/st-marys-not-intimidated-facing-ucla-ncaa-tournament St. Mary’s won’t be intimidated in the NCAA tournament when they face UCLA