By: Ryan Moran
SMC Athletic Communications
Prior to Saturday night, the last time a number one team visited the Saint Mary’s campus was the same year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. It was when a Bill Russell led San Francisco Dons team marched into the town of Moraga en route to a 65-57 victory
The booming buzz surrounding the storied matchup set the stage with the help of ESPN College GameDay. Bright lights, high reward, and a uniquely special atmosphere. No. 1 Gonzaga represented a conference rival, national audience and launch pad to a higher ranking—high stakes for the Gaels, who ESPN annalist Jay Williams described as “a giant.”
But in the end, the Gaels fell short to a hard-fought battle, 74-64. They simply were not prepared well enough for the brute strength of the Bulldogs’ post game, says head coach Randy Bennett. Nevertheless, the men who proudly display Saint Mary’s colors, and who pour their soul into what it takes to be a Division 1 athlete, were part of something most will never encounter.
“I never experienced anything like this, not at BC, not here,” says senior guard Joe Rahon on the pre-game actions. “Wake up early, kind of have the jitters and can’t fall back to sleep—turn on ESPN and they’re in our gym. Then coming to shoot around six hours before the game and people are already tailgating on campus.”
The festivities began during the late hours of Friday night, when students began to form an eager line. And by 6:30 a.m., the gym glowed in red and white with a parade of relentless cheers under the direction of an ESPN producer. The GameDay crew highlights college basketball from a gym each Saturday once conference play begins. This was their first appearance at Saint Mary’s.
“For us to get one, you may never see that again,” says Bennett on the GameDay appearance. “Let me take my coaches hat off for a second and take a step back, that is pretty cool.”
From the townspeople to the students, Bennett’s sentiment was shared. By mid-afternoon the line to enter McKeon took shape. And when the doors opened, pandemonium broke out. Fans swarmed and stormed the general admission section of the gym. Roughly an hour before tipoff, a local bay area reporter of 15-plus years posted a question from the press box that sits in front of the standing room section.
“Is it going to be like this all game?” he asks.
The correct answer was no, because it went on to become far rowdier. They screamed, stomped and sought to will the Gaels to victory. “The crowd really did help us,” says junior center Jock Landale. “If we didn’t have the crowd in it then it could’ve been a blowout. It’s always awesome coming back and playing here because they do help us a lot.”
Although the Gaels lost, a statement was etched into the future of Saint Mary’s basketball. The gym is small; the population is small. But the might—from student to supporter—rivals the best. McKeon Pavilion came alive on that Saturday night.
“It was pretty crazy,” says Rahon. “Students going that crazy is fun to see. The atmosphere is cool and we try to enjoy it, but it’s disappointing that we couldn’t give a better effort.”
So far, the Gaels have lost just three games, with two being to the number one team in the country, allowing them to hold on to a top ranked position. Saturday’s loss dropped the Gaels just two spots in the AP Top 25 poll. They currently sit at 22.
The box score from Saturday night shows a loss. It shows areas where Bennett would have liked to see a better performance. But, on that night, those in attendance witnessed something numbers do not reflect. Saturday reminded us why sports at this level is so special. History and heart brought 3,500 people together to focus their attention on 92 feet of hardwood. At bare minimum, for 40 minutes, each person was able to set aside stress and struggles and instead share the joy of sports.
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