SALT LAKE CITY – Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett sounded relieved to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night and grateful, even, to be done with Virginia Commonwealth.
Jock Landale had 18 points and 13 rebounds as seventh-seeded Saint Mary’s held on for an 85-77 victory over No. 10 VCU in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament’s West Region.
“They’re hard to put away,” Bennett said. “We’re happy to get this one done.
“We did a really good job of handling their pressure. … They just keep coming, they’re so quick and aggressive. … It’s hard to play against (them). Pressure’s hard to play against.”
The Gaels led most of the way, but had to fight to hold on after the VCU defensive pressure started to become too much in the second half.
Saint Mary’s will face second-seeded Arizona, which beat North Dakota 100-82, in the second round on Saturday.
Joe Rahon and Calvin Hermanson finished with 16 points apiece for Saint Mary’s.
JeQuan Lewis paced VCU with 30 points.
Saint Mary’s (29-4) took a 46-31 lead into halftime thanks to a 23-6 run highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Hermanson. The Gaels shot 64 percent in the first half and hit 4 of 9 from behind the arc as VCU (26-9) struggled to disrupt their halfcourt offense. On top of that, Saint Mary’s was the team able to get out on the break and score in transition. That’s VCU’s style of play, but the Rams managed just two fast-break points in the first half.
“Press break is something we work on every practice,” Rahon said. “We’re kind of ingrained to be in the right spots and just read and react.
“We’ve been in this situation before. … We were able to use our experience and kind of respond.”
The next 20 minutes were a stark contrast.
Saint Mary’s began turning the ball over from VCU’s increased pressure, which led to fast-break opportunities for the Rams. Once it began scoring more consistently, VCU was able to set up its vaunted press and cause havoc.
“There is no shame in losing to Saint Mary’s,” VCU coach Will Wade said. “They are a tremendous team both offensively and defensively.
“Our guys fought extremely hard. We are really tough to knock out, but we could never get over the hump and get the lead in the second half.”
The Gaels’ offense that was so crisp in the first half struggled to find rhythm after the break, but VCU kept fouling and sending them to the line for free points. The freebies kept the Rams from getting over the hump and their last lead was at 18-17.
“They made big plays when they needed to,” VCU forward Mo Alie-Cox said, “and every time we would go on a run, they would make a big play. They just took advantage of all our overaggressive mistakes the whole time.”
VCU: The Rams just weren’t able to impose their will on Saint Mary’s, like it has against so many others. The high-speed, plenty-of-pressure brand of basketball just didn’t disrupt the Gaels as much as they hoped. VCU made a second-half run, but it wasn’t enough.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels simply couldn’t miss in the first half, then they did enough to hold on in the second 20 minutes. The No. 2 defensive team in the country clamped down on the perimeter, but allowed a little more penetration than it would like.
VCU committed 32 fouls and Saint Mary’s hit 29 of 39 free throws, including 29 second-half attempts. VCU was 17 of 26.
Three of the Gaels’ four losses this season came against No. 1-seeded Gonzaga. They return to the tournament for the first time since 2013. Saint Mary’s hasn’t advanced past the second round since 2010.
Saint Mary’s will play Arizona on Saturday.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.