MORAGA, Calif. -- After Thursday's narrow win over Pepperdine, Saint Mary's men's basketball coach Randy Bennett made the point that while his Gaels may have gotten the win, the defensive effort that came with it was less than acceptable.
Saturday's 89-61 West Coast Conference win over Loyola Marymount will serve as exhibit A the next time Bennett implores his players to pick it up on that end of the court.
Brad Waldow enjoyed yet another standout night for the Gaels (16-5, 6-2 WCC), leading the way with 27 points and 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. Jordan Giusti had his finest offensive night as a Gael, scoring a career-high 15. Kerry Carter also added 15 for Saint Mary's. Anthony Ireland and Gabe Levin led Loyola Marymount (11-11, 3-7) with 17 apiece.
"I thought we played one of our best games of the year," Bennett said. "Giusti hitting those 3s early really helped us get some separation. A lot of guys played well. Dane Pineau played well for us defensively. Loyola is good."
Saint Mary's hit the ground running Saturday, bolting out to a 10-2 lead and making the game plan very clear: feed the big man.
Waldow was a force right away, scoring six in a row in the game-opening stretch with a dunk, layup and tip-in. His hot start benefited the whole team, opening the perimeter for Saint Mary's shooters to get hot.
Giusti was the one who took complete advantage, catching fire much to the delight of a partisan crowd. He drained a 3 from the corner early in a possession, then knocked down another on Saint Mary's next possession to force a Loyola Marymount time out and push the score to 21-7 Saint Mary's.
The stoppage was only a brief respite for the Lions, and Giusti picked up right where he left off. He hit another 3, this time from the corner to give the Gaels the 17-point lead. Matt Hodgson followed with a putback and the lead ballooned to 19 at 26-7.
There wasn't much mistake as to why Saint Mary's was able to separate the way it did. Defense was the name of the game, and the halftime stats bore out the Gaels' improvement. Loyola Marymount shot just 31 percent in the first half, turned it over nine times and Saint Mary's won both the battle on the boards and in the paint.
Saint Mary's maintained its lead into the locker room, and Waldow had the final word by scoring the final points of the half with 28 seconds left to give the Gaels a 42-24 lead at the break.
Loyola Marymount made its move to begin the second half, going on a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to 11. Saint Mary's stayed composed, working the ball inside to build the lead back up. Waldow made two free throws, and Carter got three the old-fashioned way to push the lead back to 16.
The lead only continued to grow over the next few minutes and any hope Loyola Marymount had evaporated thanks to a 15-2 Saint Mary's run that made it 59-35 Saint Mary's with 10 and a half minutes left. Waldow continued to work down low, the Gaels eliminated the turnovers and the Lions couldn't keep up.
"We had to have a good effort. We did," Bennett said. "I thought it was the best we've played defensively maybe all year. We needed to. It was the closest to a 40-minute defensive effort we've had. I was pleased with the way we played."
Saint Mary's hits the road next week for a trip to two very different climates. First comes a flight southward to take on San Diego Thursday at 7 p.m. at Jenny Craig Pavilion in a game televised live on ESPNU. The Gaels return to action Saturday at BYU for an 8 p.m. game televised by ESPN2. Live audio of both games will be available on SMCGaels.com.