By Alex Crook | Staff Writer
Saint Mary’s hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2012-13 season. This was VCU’s seventh straight season dancing. But for a group of guys with a combined zero – yes, zero – years of March Madness experience, the seventh-seeded Gaels sure knew how to use their newly-delivered dancing shoes.
Win number 29 wasn’t the prettiest the record-setting Gaels (29-4, 16-2 WCC) have recorded this year, but Saint Mary’s ran with the Rams just enough to advance to the round of 32 after the 85-77 win.
“We’re happy to get this one done,” Gaels head coach Randy Bennett said. “I was pleased with how we rebounded. That was the key. We did a good job there. We didn’t do a good job on their guard Lewis, and we didn’t do a good job stopping their transition. But fortunately, we did a good job rebounding.”
VCU and Saint Mary’s traded jabs early with neither team going ahead by more than five for the first 12 minutes, but a Jock Landale layup and Calvin Hermanson three broke the Gaels out of their shell and showed all of Vivent Smart Home Arena why the Gaels weren’t a team to take lightly.
Overall, Saint Mary’s dropped 56 percent of their shots against a Rams team that was notorious all season for their 42-percent field-goal defense. Randy Bennett’s offense was a combination of rim pursuit and making that extra pass – two things Saint Mary’s fans have become accustomed to seeing – but easily the most defining aspect of the Gaels’ tournament-opening win was the clutch play-making down the stretch.
The perfect example: a Calvin Hermanson three with five minutes to go that pushed the Gaels’ lead to 70-62. The Oregon native’s three came just half a minute before his emphatic dunk juiced the red and blue faithful that made the 727-mile trip east.
“Emmett (Naar) threw the ball up to me in that situation,” Hermanson explained. “I saw the open court in front of me. I thought I’ve got to get up there and put it down as quick as I could, because the shot blocker was coming. He couldn’t catch up and it turned out to be a nice play.”
VCU didn’t have the smoothest collection of three-point strokes coming into Thursday’s game, but the Gaels kept the Rams even more silent than usual from long range, yielding just 15 percent on the three-ball. Still, VCU’s JeQuan Lewis had a game-high 30 points to help put constant pressure on the Gaels.
“Our team is just so tight,” Hermanson said. “And in situations like that even Coach was talking about, they cut it to two, there wasn’t a lot said. We just got tougher, tighter together. We play so well together and it’s another example of under pressure we just got tight and make sure we take care of the ball. And we had great leadership, great talk, and did a good job to close out the game.”
Landale recorded his sixteenth double-double of the season with a team-high 18 points and 13 rebounds. 11 of those 13 boards came on the defensive end.
Per usual, the Gaels as a whole brashly announced their control of the defensive glass with a 30-18 advantage, despite winning the overall battle just 37-29.
A finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award, the 6-foot-11 Landale was one of five Gaels in double figures on the night along with Hermanson, Joe Rahon, Emmett Naar and the recently-hot Tanner Krebs.
“Krebs was huge,” Bennett said. “He played really well. We had foul trouble. Joe had two, Dane had two, and Calvin had two. And Tanner came in, and he was outstanding in his free throws, made shots. I thought he helped us defensively. He’s a good defender.”
The Gaels now prepare for Saturday, when they’ll take on Pac-12 champion and second-seeded Arizona in the Round of 32 at an undisclosed time.