MORAGA, Calif. -- A pivotal run midway through the second half and a career night from James Walker III helped the Saint Mary's men's basketball team pull away from San Diego and score a huge 69-57 win in a key West Coast Conference contest Thursday at McKeon Pavilion.
Walker, who did not score at all on the road last weekend, found his stroke on Thursday. He finished with 21, eclipsing his previous career high of 17 set last month. Stephen Holt added 13 for Saint Mary's (19-7, 9-4 WCC) and Kerry Carter chipped in with 12. Dennis Kramer set a career high of his own with 25 for San Diego (13-14, 4-10).
With Saint Mary's fighting to put San Diego away, Walker was the one to light the fuse. A bucket by Kramer capped a 7-0 Toreros run and made it 45-40 San Diego with 15 minutes to play but Walker had the answer, as his 3-point play with 12:42 to play knotted the score again at 47.
Walker would just a few moments later provide the biggest crowd reaction of the night when he dipped under the hoop, drew the foul from Chris Sarbaugh and used a little english to make an acrobatic transition layup. Walker converted the free throw and gave Saint Mary's the 52-49 lead with 11:09 remaining.
That only opened the floodgates. The Gaels turned into terrors on the defensive end, with a steal by Carter and two blocks by Matt Hodgson on the ensuing two possessions. Carter buried a 3 after Hodgson's second block and Holt added a layup to push the run to 11-0 and put SMC up 58-49 with 8:23 to go.
San Diego narrowed the gap again, cutting the lead to five on a layup by Johnny Dee with 5:47 left. The Gaels answered this time from beyond the arc, as Garrett Jackson knocked down his second trey of the night to restore the crowd's jubilant energy. Two free throws and a layup by Walker, followed by a layup by Hodgson made it 69-55 Saint Mary's with 3:29 to play. San Diego never got significantly closer than that, and Saint Mary's rode the momentum for the rest of the game and finished the win.
"We were down five, Hodge made it harder for them to score. They couldn't just play off that," Saint Mary's head coach Randy Bennett said. "We were pretty good on our other matchups and after that, we made some good plays, got some transition out of that and I thought that was the key to the game."
Saint Mary's carried a slim one-point lead into halftime after a half that was vastly different than the first half played by the Gaels and Toreros in San Diego two weeks prior.
This time around, Saint Mary's was able to find a bit of flow offensively thanks to some transition and some much improved ball movement. Seven Gaels scored in the first half alone, led by Walker and Holt with nine apiece.
Even with the improved offense though, Saint Mary's couldn't shake the Toreros, and SMC's lead got no larger than seven before the break. A dunk by Jito Kok capped a 6-0 San Diego run and knotted the score at 34 with 21 seconds left, but Walker hit one of two free throws with three seconds remaining to give the Gaels the 35-34 lead heading into the locker room.
"The league's tough. Very tough. Pacific gets BYU tonight, Pacific went in and beat San Diego after San Diego beat us. Those are good teams," Bennett said. "I think San Diego's a good team. We knew it was going to be a tough game. It just felt good to play well in the second half, be able to separate and get that win."
Saint Mary's returns to action Saturday at 5 p.m. against BYU in what will be one of the most anticipated of the season, not just for a sure-to-be exciting game but also for what will happen beforehand. Saint Mary's will welcome back its all-time leading scorer, Matthew Dellavedova, for a pre-game ceremony to retire his No. 4 jersey. The native of Maryborough, Victoria, Australia becomes just the second SMC men's basketball player ever to have his number retired, and his number will join Tom Meschery's in the rafters of McKeon Pavilion.
The BYU game is sold out, but a limited number of tickets may become available closer to Saturday. Fans are encouraged to arrive early to enjoy the pregame festivities. Tickets to the penultimate home game of the season -- Feb. 27 vs. Portland -- can be purchased by clicking the Tickets link on SMCGaels.com or by calling the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTX.