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Gaels’ Mills gets well against Eagles

Finds his scoring touch in 20-point win

MORAGA, Calif. – The Eastern Washington men’s basketball team had the chance to play spoiler Friday night at Saint Mary’s.

An Eagles win would’ve likely delivered the knockout blow to the host Gaels’ chances of an NCAA men’s basketball tournament berth.

Instead, Saint Mary’s got exactly what it wanted – a strong outing from star sophomore guard Patty Mills and an 85-65 win over Eastern that may provide the boost the Gaels need to secure an at-large tournament berth.

“It’s out of our control,” said Mills, who finished with 19 points and four steals in 33 minutes. “Hopefully, we’ve done enough.”

The game, which was a late addition to both teams’ schedule, was added in part so Saint Mary’s (26-6) could show the NCAA selection committee that Mills was healthy enough to be a dynamic player in the tournament.

Mills missed nine games after breaking his hand Jan. 29 in a loss to Gonzaga. He returned for last week’s West Coast Conference tournament but struggled mightily in an 83-58 championship game loss to the Zags – shooting just 2 of 16.

Mills connected on 6 of 14 from the field in this win, including 4 of 9 from 3-point range. More important, he showed the aggressiveness and confidence of the player that helped Saint Mary’s start the season 18-1.

“This shows that Pat, I think, is back,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “What else do you want a guy to do?”

While Mills was strong, it was the play of 6-foot-11 center Omar Samhan that truly impressed. He scored 19 of his career- and game-high 29 points in the second half and added 12 rebounds.

Samhan didn’t sugarcoat how miserable the waiting period would be until tournament selections are announced Sunday afternoon.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “The worst 48 hours of my life.”

The Eagles (12-18) made it a back-and-forth affair for most of the first half with six ties and four lead changes through the first 13 minutes.

Eastern’s biggest surge was a 7-0 run that came after Saint Mary’s scored the first four points of the game. The Eagles missed another chance to tie it when Chris Busch couldn’t connect on a free throw to finish a three-point play that left it at 24-23 with 7:31 left in the first half.

Even as the Gaels tried to pull away, Eastern refused to back down. Wayne Hunter hit a 3-pointer for Saint Mary’s to give them their largest lead of the half at 33-25 with just more than 3 minutes left, but four straight points from Eastern narrowed the gap. Hunter’s second 3 closed the first-half scoring and gave the Gaels a 38-31 lead.

The Eagles were within six when Milan Stanojevic hit a 3 early in the second half. Saint Mary’s answered with a 17-2 run that was capped by back-to-back 3s from Mills to make it 57-36 with just more than 14 minutes to play.

The game never got competitive the rest of the way. A pair of 3s from Eastern’s Benny Valentine made it a 59-44 game but a 10-2 Saint Mary’s run pushed the lead back up and the Eagles never got closer than 20.

“They blocked three or four of our shots early in the second half, and, for whatever reason, that deflated us,” EWU coach Kirk Earlywine said. “Our ball-screen defense broke down and it was a case of not being sharp enough. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of effort, but if we were sharp enough those are turnovers.”

Busch, an Oakland, Calif., native who was making his homecoming, had a strong game off the bench for Eastern with 10 points and four blocks. Brandon Moore paced Eastern with 15 points.

The Eagles and Gaels used different NCAA schedule exceptions that allowed them to add the game to the end of their regular-season schedules.

Saint Mary’s 85, EWU 65

E. Washington (12-18)—Gibson 3-3 1-1 8, Genao 5-8 0-0 10, Stanojevic 2-3 3-3 9, Brunell 0-3 0-0 0, Moore 5-9 5-6 15, Busch 4-5 2-3 10, Valentine 4-12 1-1 11, DeLeon 0-8 0-1 0, Christensen 0-0 0-0 0, Dunn 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 24-55 12-15 65.

Saint Mary’s (26-6)—Mills 6-14 3-4 19, Simpson 5-9 5-5 15, Hunter 2-5 0-0 6, McConnell 0-3 0-0 0, Samhan 13-16 3-4 29, Hughes 4-7 0-0 10, O’Leary 0-4 0-0 0, Smith 2-4 2-2 6, Steindl 0-2 0-0 0, Walker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-64 13-15 85.

Halftime—Saint Mary’s 38-31. 3-Point Goals—E. Washington 5-12 (Stanojevic 2-2, Valentine 2-3, Gibson 1-1, Genao 0-1, Busch 0-1, DeLeon 0-4), Saint Mary’s 8-21 (Mills 4-9, Hunter 2-2, Hughes 2-4, McConnell 0-1, O’Leary 0-1, Steindl 0-2, Smith 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—E. Washington 27 (Moore 5), Saint Mary’s 38 (Samhan 12). Assists—E. Washington 8 (Brunell, DeLeon, Genao 2), Saint Mary’s 13 (McConnell 6). Total Fouls—E. Washington 16, Saint Mary’s 11. A—NA.