MORAGA, Calif. -- In the survive and advance setting of college basketball's postseason, the Saint Mary's men's basketball team had its proverbial back against the wall in its first round National Invitation Tournament game against Utah.
The Gaels came off the wall swinging, and for that, they lived to play another day.
A stunning second half comeback, some of which came without point guard Stephen Holt, propelled Saint Mary's to a 70-58 win and a date with Minnesota on Sunday in the second round of the NIT.
James Walker III led Saint Mary's (23-11) with a career high-tying 21 points. Holt added 15, Kerry Carter had 10 and Matt Hodgson chipped in with eight points and a season-high four blocks. Jordan Loveridge led Utah (21-12) with 16.
"That was one of the best feelings on a win we've had here and we've had some good ones. That one was special for a lot of reasons," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "... I was really proud and happy for our team but especially for our seniors. You don't get a chance to get a redo very often on a Senior Night but they were fortunate enough to get one and they took advantage of it."
The comeback started a few minutes earlier, but one of Tuesday's most crucial moments came with 5:06 remaining. That's when Holt fouled out for the first time this year on an offensive foul on a play that stripped the Gaels of their point guard for the stretch run.
Holt sat, but Saint Mary's just kept coming.
Carter knocked down a 3-pointer with 4:19 left to pull SMC into a tie at 50-all, then made a steal and broke back down the court for a transition layup. His bucket gave Saint Mary's its first lead at 52-50 with 3:49 to play.
To extend the lead, Beau Levesque made his biggest mark on the game all night. Left open from long distance, the senior from Lafayette, Calif. calmly knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 57-50. Carter nailed one of his own on the ensuing possession and with 2:03 to play, Saint Mary's had the game in hand with a 60-50 lead.
"We came out kind of timid," Walker said. "They got up on us 11-0 and (Bennett) told us you've got to be ready for the fight because they're coming to hunt us. He told us, you've got to keep coming, keep coming, next play. It starts with our defense though. We've got to get stops. That was the main thing he pointed out at halftime."
Utah tried to force its way back in down the stretch, but Saint Mary's did what it needed to both defensively and on the free throw line to keep its lead. The Utes struggled to score over the final five minutes, making one field goal over the last five minutes, all of which came with Holt on the bench.
After trailing by as much as 13 in the first half, Saint Mary's second half comeback attempt hit one of its loudest points with just over 11 minutes to play. A block by Hodgson sent the Gaels back on offense and Walker converted, corkscrewing a layup that found the net to cut the deficit to 41-35 with 11:19 left.
In fact, it was Hodgson's defense that brought some of the most vociferous applause of the night. His rejection of a Brandon Taylor shot forced a shot clock violation, then the Australian big man converted on offense with a layup of his own to bring Saint Mary's to within seven at 44-37 with 8:52 left. Hodgson scored again on the next possession with an up and under layup, bringing the game to within five and forcing Utah coach Larry Krystowiak to call time out.
That proved to be just the beginning of the decibel-raising play for the Gaels. Holt nearly blew the roof off the building a few possessions later, scoring three the old-fashioned way to bring the score to 46-44 with 6:11 remaining. After a Utes bucket, Holt did it again, knifing to the hoop, drawing the contact and converting the layup. He again made the free throw and suddenly Saint Mary's trailed by just one.
Despite a slow start that saw Utah jump out to an 11-0 lead immediately, Saint Mary's trailed by just seven heading into halftime.
The Utes had the energy and aggression early, and a 3-pointer from the wing by Brandon Taylor capped the game-opening run. That woke Saint Mary's up though, as Holt snapped the streak with a 3 of his own and the Gaels closed to 11-7 with a 7-0 run of their own.
Saint Mary's got as close as 13-12 before Utah started to pull away again. A free throw by Princeton Onwas pushed the lead to its highest point at 13 with 5:04 left in the half. Cold shooting by the Gaels was partially to blame, as Saint Mary's made just five of its first 22 field goal attempts while Utah started 10 for 15.
A bit of momentum swung back in Saint Mary's favor right before the break, as the Gaels got a stop on Utah's final offensive possession and Holt had enough time to call a play. That play was to dial up his own number, as the senior from Portland, Ore. banked a runner off the glass just before the buzzer to make the score 30-23 in favor of the Utes heading into the locker room.
Tuesday's win also carried with it a bit of history. It was the 16th home win this season for Saint Mary's, tying the school record for most home wins in a season. The mark ties the 2011-12 team.