MORAGA, Calif. -- With the beginning of conference play just one day away, the Saint Mary's men's basketball team is in good position after a successful start to the season.
At 11-3 currently, the Gaels could potentially finish the season with a better non-conference mark than the 11-3 mark they finished with a year ago. That will depend on the outcome of Februrary's ESPN BracketBusters game against an opponent yet to be determined.
Wins at Utah State and Drake, along with a victory over Drexel at the DIRECTV Classic have provided some of the highlights in the early campaign. Home triumphs over always-solid teams Cal Poly and Pacific have also bolstered the resume.
It wasn't until Monday that Saint Mary's got that signature moment to take the team into conference play. Trailing at one point by 18 points, and by 10 with four minutes to play, the Gaels rallied to beat Harvard 70-69 on two free throws by Mitchell Young with 1.1 seconds left.
The win will likely prove significant in a multitude of ways, but on an immediate level, the confidence gained from a victory like that is something that head coach Randy Bennett says isn't necessarily something a coach can drill into his team.
"It creates a strong belief," Bennett said. "When you come back from down 18, and come back from down 10 with four minutes to go, I don't know if there's anything you can do to create that belief other than to do it. Guys believe we can play through those situations."
Beating Harvard might have provided the memorable moment, but it also put an exclamation point on a first part of the 2012-13 season that was plenty fruitful.
Statistically, Saint Mary's stacks up well against with its West Coast Conference competition. Through games played Wednesday, the Gaels are second in scoring offense (79.9 points per game), second in field goal percentage (50.1 percent), first in 3-point percentage (40.8), first in free throw percentage (76.1) and second in rebounding margin (+9.2 rebounds per game).
Those strong team numbers have also made for good individual marks. All-America candidate guard Matthew Dellavedova is fifth in scoring at 17.4 points per game. He also leads the conference in assists at 6.6 per game, and is first in minutes played with 36.4 per contest.
James Walker III also features prominently on the conference stat sheet, thanks to some outstanding 3-point marksmanship. The transfer from Citrus College enters conference play shooting a scalding 52 percent from long distance, good for first in the WCC.
"I don't think we could've done better as far as finding a guy that fit what we needed for this team," Bennett said. "It's hard to get a freshman or a junior college guy that can come in, blend in and perform at the level he has as an incoming guy. We knew we were going to miss Clint (Steindl's) shooting and his ability to defend. James has really filled that role."
What Saint Mary's has done so far serves as prelude to what's to come, with the always-tough WCC looking extra deep this season. As two-time defending champions, there's no question the Gaels enter as the team everyone is looking to knock off.
"We have to approach it in a different way," Bennett said. "We have to approach it like we're trying to win one, not defend one. I think it's key that you stay aggressive versus on your heels.
We're still figuring some things out, but the positive side of that is I think we have a lot of room to grow still. I think we will. I told our team the other day, everyone gets a little better, we get a lot better."