MORAGA, Calif. -- As expected, the Saint Mary's men's basketball team received a stiff challenge from Loyola Marymount for the majority of the Gaels' West Coast Conference opener Saturday at McKeon Pavilion.
Eventually though, Saint Mary's managed to pull away, scoring a 74-61 win over the Lions to begin the conference season on a definite high note.
Matthew Dellavedova led Saint Mary's (12-3, 1-0 WCC) on the stat sheet, with 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds. James Walker III added 12 points, and Beau Levesque chipped in with 11.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game. We just really wanted to get a good start to conference," Dellavedova said. "We knew they were going to be physical, so we just wanted to come out and be more ready to play."
Walker and Levesque led the Gaels' bench mob, which outscored the Lions reserves 38-2.
Anthony Ireland led Loyola Marymount (7-8, 0-2 WCC) with 16 points.
Saint Mary's managed to finally take control late in the second half, with a pair of free throws by Walker putting the Gaels up 67-53 with 3:04 to play. The margin would get a bit closer, but the Lions could never get within striking distance.
"We were good in the second half defensively, and a lot of the first half we were," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "Once we got separation, we did a good job of holding it."
That lead came after a first half that saw Saint Mary's build just a narrow three-point lead.
That changed near the 14-minute mark, when Walker knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to put Saint Mary's up 50-41 with 13:59 left. That caused Loyola Marymount coach Max Good to call time out to try and quiet a Gaels crowd beginning to rev up.
Saint Mary's looked set to take a 30-all tie into halftime, but that turned into a crowd-raising three-point lead when Jordan Giusti beat the buzzer with a heave from just inside half court that hit glass and caromed in to give the Gaels a 33-30 advantage.
Giusti's good play wasn't limited to one shot.
The redshirt freshman from San Ramon, Calif. was again a defensive standout, marking Loyola Marymount point guard Anthony Ireland whenever he was in the game. Giusti's defense held the league's leading scorer to a five of 18 performance from the floor.
Giusti also added eight points offensively, matching his career-high.
"He was really valuable when we didn't have (Stephen) Holt. He was an unsung hero in that time. That helped me to gain confidence in him," Bennett said. "I see him every day in practice and he's been going against Dellavedova for his whole redshirt year and then this year. We always said man, that guy's really tough. He gives Dellavedova problems in practice."
Before Giusti gave Saint Mary's the lead, the Lions and Gaels looked every bit equals for almost 20 minutes.
The first-half numbers bore that out. Saint Mary's went on a 7-0 run to begin the game, but Loyola Marymount countered with a 9-0 run to take the lead.
And, by the break, the stat sheet looked fairly similar. Loyola Marymount owned a slight edge (18-16) on the boards, but Saint Mary's shot 45 percent to the Lions' 42.
With Levesque sidelined due to foul trouble for much of the second half, the Gaels got a valuable contribution from Matt Hodgson. The junior from Booval, Queensland, Australia scored seven points.
Saint Mary's is back in action Thursday with a trip to the Pacific Northwest for their annual showdown with Gonzaga. That game is set for an 8 p.m. tip-off, and will be televised by ESPN2.
The Gaels return to Moraga on Saturday for a 5 p.m. game against San Francisco. Tickets are available online at SMCGaels.com or through the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTx.