MORAGA, Calif. -- A determined effort from visiting Portland called for a gritty performance by the Saint Mary's men's basketball team and the Gaels delivered just that, making the plays it needed to down the stretch to pull out a 70-61 victory over the Pilots at McKeon Pavilion.
Stephen Holt led Saint Mary's (21-9, 11-6 West Coast Conference) with 26 points. Brad Waldow added 14 points and nine rebounds and Kerry Carter contributed with 12 points. Thomas van der Mars led Portland (15-14, 7-10) with 22.
Holding onto a tenuous five-point lead late, Holt pushed the lead to seven with a drive and a layup., That put the Gaels up 60-53 with 2:12 left, and a stop down low by Waldow and Beau Levesque gave Saint Mary's a chance for more. Levesque obliged at the other end, laying it in to put the Gaels up 62-53 with 1:34 left.
A layup at the other end by van der Mars closed the gap to 62-55, but Holt responded with two free throws to keep the Gaels' advantage at nine. That sequence repeated itself for each team's next possession, as van der Mars dropped in a bucket only to see Holt reply with two more free throws. Saint Mary's went on to ice the game from the line, picking up its 11th conference win of the season.
"We just had a tough time stopping them. They beat us on the boards and we didn't get enough stops, especially in the first half. We have to get better there," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "Fortunately, I thought we were pretty efficient offensively. We ended up shooting a lot of 3s because they zoned us a lot. If you shoot that many 3s, 29 3s, and shoot basically 38 percent, that's pretty efficient offensively. We've just got to do those other things better."
With 10 minutes left to play, the game still hung very much in the balance with Saint Mary's leading 49-46. A 3-pointer by Carter with 13:50 to play gave the Gaels a brief seven-point lead, but Portland worked quickly to cut into that and keep the game within five for much of the second half.
Holt got the margin back to seven with just over eight minutes remaining, driving the lane with the shot clock winding down and hitting a step back fadeaway to bring the score to 53-46 in favor of the Gaels. After a Portland turnover, Paul McCoy extended that lead to nine with a heavily contested layup that put Saint Mary's up 55-46.
Portland wouldn't go away though, and a 3-pointer from the corner by David Carr closed the gap to 55-51 with just over five minutes to play. A fadeaway by Ryan Nicholas narrowed the Gaels' lead even further, and Bennett called time out with his squad up 55-53 with 4:38 to play.
Holt had the answer out of the time out, draining a 3 to make it 58-53 Saint Mary's. The two teams went to the final media stoppage with the Gaels up five and Portland threatening to continue its comeback.
"His senior year has really been impressive," Bennett said of Holt. "He's gotten better from month to month to month. You don't always see that with a fourth-year senior. You see it from freshmen, guys who haven't played a lot but he has really improved from the beginning of this year to the end of this year."
Saint Mary's took a four-point lead to halftime thanks to a first half that saw more action from beyond the arc than inside it. The Gaels got off to a fast enough start, with a 3-pointer from the corner by Walker making it 12-4 Gaels early.
Portland responded with a 7-0 run of its own, and a 3 by Ryan Nicholas made it 12-11 Saint Mary's with just under 13 minutes left in the half. The long range fireworks were just a sign of things to come for the Gaels. The team's first five field goals came from beyond the arc, and by the time the half ended, eight of Saint Mary's 10 field goals were from long distance.
Both teams stayed in close contact with one another all the way into the break, with Saint Mary's taking a six-point lead on a 3-pointer by Holt with 1:58 left. A layup by Bryce Pressley with 49 seconds left finished the scoring, and the Gaels held onto a 34-30 lead going into the locker room.
Saint Mary's wraps up its regular season on Saturday when it hosts Gonzaga at 7 p.m. The game is sold out, and fans are encouraged to come early for a pregame ceremony honoring six seniors and two team managers taking part in their final game at McKeon Pavilion. The game will be televised live on ESPN2 with Beth Mowins and Kara Lawson on the call, and Alex Jensen will describe the action as always on SMCGaels.com.