PORTLAND, Ore. -- Looking to re-establish a bit of momentum and bounce back after a rough game two nights earlier, the Saint Mary's men's basketball team turned in a gritty performance to outlast a game Portland squad in a 72-63 win at Chiles Center.
Portland native Stephen Holt enjoyed his final homecoming game as a Gael, leading all scorers with 19 points. Fellow senior Beau Levesque also had a productive final trip to the Rose City, scoring 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Brad Waldow also scored 13 and led Saint Mary's (11-4, 2-1 West Coast Conference) with eight rebounds. Ryan Nicholas led Portland (9-7, 1-3) with 12 points.
Leading by just six at half, Saint Mary's extended that lead to 12 early in the second half thanks to a hot start by Levesque. The senior from Lafayette, Calif. scored nine of the Gaels' first 10 points out of halftime, and his 3-pointer with 15:23 remaining pushed the score to 49-37 Saint Mary's.
"We spent a lot of time in preparation on defense," said acting head coach Eran Ganot. "They’ve been very good offensively this year and we’ve been deficient defensively. It was a number one focus for us. (Portland does) a great job. They have a great program and a great coaching staff and it is tough to get a win on the road here. Obviously, the first six minutes were more of the same for us defensively. I’m very proud of our group to bounce back from that game at Gonzaga and, really, to bounce back today from that brutal first five or six minutes."
Portland did not shrink from the challenge, instead fighting its way back into the game. A 9-0 Pilots run saw its share of crazy plays, including an ejection of Saint Mary's center Matt Hodgson for an elbowing foul deemed flagrant unneccessary and excessive. A layup by Volodymyr Gerun capped the run and cut the Saint Mary's lead to 52-50 with 8:21 left.
That was as close as the Pilots would get and over the next five minutes, Saint Mary's re-established the lead for good. A bucket by Waldow with 3:33 left pushed the advantage back to 10 at 60-50 and capped an 8-0 run that put the game out of reach for good.
“We were terrible in the first half, for about the first five minutes," said Holt. "I don’t know if it was jitters or just little mistakes. (Down the stretch) we showed composure. Being the point guard and the leader, it is my job to give guys confidence. I just wanted to be aggressive and make plays. I made some plays, we got into a rhythm and we started hitting some threes. We finally got our swagger back and we carried it into the second half. Guys hit their free throws and got big rebounds when we needed to."
Portland opened Saturday's game as the aggressor, building an early 15-8 lead over the first five minutes that Nicholas capped with a layup after a great entry pass by Bryce Pressley.
Soon though, the hometown kid took over. A steal, breakout and layup by Holt, combined with a foul and subsequent free throw, tied the score at 19 with 9:15 left in the half.
Holt was just getting started, making a layup on the next Gaels possession and then hitting a mid-range jumper a few seconds later. By the time the Jesuit High grad was finished, he had nine straight and Saint Mary's trailed the Pilots 24-23 with 7:47 left in the half.
The next run came courtesy of Pineau, who for the first time this season showed the immense potential he brings to the Saint Mary's frontcourt. He scored five in a row, including a 3-pointer that put the Gaels up 29-28 and gave them their first lead since 6-4.
Saint Mary's expanded on that lead a bit going into halftime, using a good post presence to make the difference. The Gaels won the rebounding battle 20-12 in the first half, turning that into 22 points in the paint to Portland's 12, and as a result held a 39-33 lead at the break.
Having played its last six games away from home, Saint Mary's returns to the friendly confines of McKeon Pavilion on Monday when it hosts William Jessup at 7 p.m. That begins a six-game homestand for the Gaels, with a Bay Area rivalry doubleheader on tap for later in the week. Santa Clara visits on Thursday for a 7 p.m. contest and San Francisco travels across the Bay for a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Tickets to all home games are available by clicking the Tickets link on SMCGaels.com or by calling the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTx.