MORAGA, Calif. -- As most of the Bay Area lay deep in slumber early Tuesday morning, the Saint Mary's men's basketball team continued to show that the middle of the night is the perfect time to go to work.
For the fifth straight time that they've appeared in the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, the Gaels used the late night setting as an opportunity to get a good win against a quality opponent, fighting off a stern early challenge from visiting Akron to defeat the Zips 85-63 in a game that started at midnight and ended at 2:14 a.m.
Brad Waldow enjoyed his second strong game in a row, scoring 16 points to lead Saint Mary's (2-0). James Walker III added a career-high 15 points to go with four steals, and Jordan Giusti also notched career highs in points (12) and steals (six). Stephen Holt rounded out the Gaels in double figures, going 12-for-12 from the line to score 14 points.
"Playing at home helps in these. I'll say this, when you're here, it's weird. It doesn't feel like it's midnight. You wouldn't know the difference whether it's 7 o'clock or midnight until you leave the gym and it's 3 in the morning," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "If you would've watched that game not knowing (the time) you wouldn't have thought people were lethargic or anything. I thought our guys were pretty alert and ready to go."
Having held the lead for the first eight minutes of the second half but never able to break the game open, Saint Mary's finally started to gain a little distance with just under 10 minutes to play.
The decisive run started with a free throw by Giusti with 13:01 to play, and when he missed the second foul shot, Matt Hodgson was there to tip it in and put SMC up 50-44.
Garrett Jackson's offensive rebound and putback made it 52-44 with 12:19 to go, and a stop on the other end gave the Gaels the ball back with a chance to push the lead to double digits. Holt obliged, hitting two free throws with 11:18 to play that made the score 54-44.
Two more Holt free throws widened the gap to 12, and the margin grew even larger when Giusti plucked a steal near midcourt, bolted down the floor and laid it in to make the score 58-44 with 9:50 to play. A free throw by Akron slowed the momentum just a bit, but back to back layups by Walker and Jackson pushed the run to 15-1 and left Saint Mary's in command with a 62-45 lead at the 8:58 mark.
"We just kept sticking to the same things we've been doing. We kept at it defensively and offensively," said Beau Levesque. "The shots started falling and we started getting stops on defense. Guys like James and Giusti started making some big plays and getting us in transition. We extended, then we kind of put it on them at the end."
That advantage would hold steady throughout the rest of the game, with Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett able to take a look at several members of his bench. The results were largely positive, as the Gaels got good contributions Tuesday from Hodgson, Jackson, Dane Pineau and Kerry Carter.
While Akron managed to win the rebounding battle, Saint Mary's turned the tide with outstanding perimeter defense. Giusti and Walker harrassed the Zips' guards all night long, putting pressure on the ball and helping to keep the ball out of comfortable positions as the Gaels then proceeded to go to work in transition.
A back and forth first half turned in Saint Mary's favor late thanks to some good defense and a bit of clutch playmaking.
The Gaels ended the half on an 11-3 run, beginning with a pair of free throws from Holt and two more from Levesque.
Defense keyed the next stretch, as Walker used a little thievery to start the break. His steal would only be the first contribution, as he got the ball back on the offensive end and knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 34-28 Saint Mary's.
Giusti followed on the next possession with a nifty move to duck past a defender and hit a floater in the lane. After Akron's Kwan Cheatham Jr. nailed a 3-pointer to bring the Zips a bit closer, it was again Giusti leading the playmaking charge as time expired. The sophomore from Danville, Calif. cut into the lane, wrapped a pass around a defender to a waiting Waldow and the Gaels big man dropped it in as time expired to make it 38-31 SMC at the break.
"I'm not going to be able to sleep for a while. I'm amped right now," Giusti said. "We're 2-0 and I'm happy."
Saint Mary's will try to get a bit of sleep, go to class and then get back to work as the Gaels host North Dakota State on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. The game will follow Saint Mary's volleyball's match against rival Santa Clara. Men's basketball season ticket holders can receive complimentary admission to the volleyball match, so come early and stay late for a full evening of Gaels Athletics!