BC-BKC--Saint Mary’s-San Diego,1st Ld-Writethru
SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Saint Mary’s Gaels are coming on strong at the right time and can earn the No. 2 seed in the West Coast Conference tournament if the final weekend of the regular season goes their way.
Jordan Ford scored 21 points and Malik Fitts had 11 points and 11 rebounds for the Saint Mary’s Gaels, who used strong defense to beat the cold-shooting San Diego Toreros 66-46 Saturday night for their fourth straight win.
Tanner Krebs and Tommy Kuhse had 10 points apiece and Jordan Hunter 11 rebounds for the Gaels (19-10, 10-4 West Coast), who won for the sixth time in seven games. They came in tied for third in the league with San Francisco. League-leading and No. 2-ranked Gonzaga hosted second-place BYU on Saturday night.
In a change to the conference tournament format, the top two seeds draw byes all the way into the semifinals. The third- and fourth-seeded teams go straight to the quarters.
“It’s huge. It’s a triple-bye. If you’ve got 1 or 2, you’re in the semis,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Because we won these two this weekend, we’re still in the race.”
The Gaels beat Pacific 58-32 on Thursday night.
It’s a nice place to be, considering the Gaels started the season 3-4.
“We just had a lot of guys who were inexperienced and playing significant roles,” Bennett said. “Only guy we had was Ford and he’s had to even step his up. Every week or two they make a little jump and keep improving. We’ve improved a lot from Dec. 1 until now.”
Senior Isaiah Pineiro had 13 points and 14 rebounds on Senior Night for the Toreros (17-12, 6-8), who continued to struggle down the stretch under first-year coach Sam Scholl. The 46 points were a season-low as they lost for the fifth time in seven games, including going 1-3 on their final homestand.
Pineiro, who leads USD in scoring and rebounding, had his seventh double-double in the last eight games and his 13th this season. Olin Carter III had 12 points and Isaiah Wright 10.
The combination of Ford, a junior guard who leads the WCC in scoring, plus big men Fitts and Hunter was too much for the Toreros.
Ford had eight points, including a 3-pointer, in a 12-4 run midway through the first half that gave the Gaels a 10-point lead and helped carry them to a 29-20 halftime lead.
The Gaels had a 17-point lead midway through the second half before USD closed within 11. But Ford hit a dagger 3 — and held his follow-through for a few seconds — to give Saint Mary’s a 47-33 lead.
“They dominated us in every aspect of the game,” Scholl said. “They’re a tremendous defensive team. ... They’re really tough in the paint. Can’t give them enough credit.”
Said Bennett: “We’re good on D. We were really good at Pacific. It gave us some confidence. It was our best defensive outing of the year against Pacific, and then we came down here. They’re hard to guard. They really run good stuff offensively. But our guys stepped up.”
Saint Mary’s outrebounded San Diego 43-30 and the Toreros shot only 29.4 percent from the floor (15 of 51).
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels, who swept the season series with San Diego, will finish the regular season at home, Thursday night against last-place Portland, which is winless in the conference, and Saturday night against first-place and No. 2-ranked Gonzaga.
San Diego: The Toreros’ late-season collapse cost them at shot at being one of the WCC’s top four seeds for the conference tournament. They went 1-3 in their final four home games, including losses to BYU and then-No. 3 Gonzaga.
Saint Mary’s hosts Portland on Thursday night.
San Diego is at San Francisco on Thursday night and BYU next Saturday night.