MORAGA, Calif. -- For the third game in a row, the Saint Mary's men's basketball had to withstand a charge from a tough, talented out of state invader.
And, for the third straight contest, the Gaels proved more than up to the task.
Thursday's 78-65 win over North Dakota State was one of the gritty variety as Saint Mary's scored its 21st-straight home win over a non-conference opponent by defeating the Bison at McKeon Pavilion.
Every player to touch the floor for Saint Mary's (3-0) scored at least five points, led by Brad Waldow who finished as the Gaels' high-point man for the third game in a row with 18. Waldow added 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.
Beau Levesque scored 14 points in the win and Matt Hodgson added 10 off the bench. Saint Mary's made its biggest impact on the boards, outrebounding North Dakota State 40-22. Marshall Bjorklund led North Dakota State (1-1) with 23.
There would be no running away for the Gaels on Thursday, as the pattern they used in the first two games of extending the lead in the second half was thwarted by a game group of Bison.
Holding a five-point lead with under two minutes to play, Saint Mary's needed to make a few big plays of their own to salt the game away.
One came from Hodgson. Ducking under a defender in the post, his layup with 1:13 left gave the Gaels a bit of breathing room, putting them up 71-64.
After Bjorklund and Waldow each split a pair of free throws, Waldow would provide the defensive stop of the game. His block of Bjorklund's shot down low sent the ball off a Bison player and out of bounds. Levesque followed with two free throws, and the Gaels were able to close the game out from the line.
"We beat a very good team," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "That was a good game for us to play. Fortunately, we were able to come out with the win. That game was 2, 4, 6 but we couldn't get past 6 in the second half. I would rather separate, but that was good for us to have to play in one of those because that's how games are going to get. You're going to have play through that and keep your composure. A lot of guys made good plays."
With four minutes to play, absolutely nothing had been decided as both teams battled back and forth for whatever hard-nosed buckets they could find.
But, while Saint Mary's was fighting to stay in the lead, the Gaels were at the same time calling on the very strength head coach Bennett identified well before the season started -- depth.
That concept showed most in the contributions of backup forward Garrett Jackson. Called on to provide a spark, the transfer from USC responded. He scored five of eight at one point, and his layup with 6:10 remaining made it 61-56 Gaels.
Saint Mary's wouldn't score another field goal until the 2:50 mark, when a layup by Holt made it 67-61 Saint Mary's.
"A lot of different guys stepped up at different times," Bennett said. "James (Walker III) made a big drive, Beau made some big plays. I thought Garrett made some really big plays. I thought Hodge made big plays, Brad did and I thought (Stephen) Holt and (Jordan) Giusti did a good job defensively most of the game. They had a tough assignment."
Neither team managed to gain an edge on its opponent through the first 10 minutes of the second half, with Saint Mary's maintaining a slim lead throughout the stretch but never separating thanks to a determined effort by the Bison.
That small advantage came courtesy of a first half that featured more of a grind-it-out tempo than up and down fireworks as Saint Mary's carried a 34-27 advantage to the locker room.
A 9-2 run midway through the half gave the Gaels the advantage they were looking for. Two free throws by Holt, a layup by Beau Levesque, a layup by James Walker III and a free throw and tip-in by Waldow left the Gaels up 22-14 with 5:52 remaining in the half.
North Dakota State did manage to sap a bit of SMC's momentum at the end of the half, as Lawrence Alexander knocked down a long 2-pointer as time expired. That only cut the deficit to seven though, and Saint Mary's carried plenty of good feelings with them into halftime.
Saint Mary's continues its season-opening run of home games on Saturday when the Gaels host Drake at 7 p.m. Alex Jensen will have the call on SMCGaels.com as live streaming video and live statistics will each be available. Tickets are available by clicking the Tickets link on SMCGaels.com or by calling the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTx.