MORAGA — There was excitement but no real drama, with everyone at Saint Mary’s College Sunday knowing full well that actually making the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was a foregone conclusion.
But that didn’t prevent a celebration among players, students and fans at around 3:30 p.m. when the Gaels learned they had received the highest seed in program history. Saint Mary’s plays its first game Thursday night and won’t have to leave the West Coast as the No. 5 seed in the East, facing the winner of a play-in game between Indiana (20-13) and Wyoming (25-8), who shared the 12th seed.
The Gaels (25-7) have twice been seeded No. 7 in 2018-19 and 2011-12. The doors at McKeon Pavilion opened at 2 p.m. at McKeon Pavilion to the sounds of the Saint Mary’s band. Gaels players were seated on the same floor where they compiled a 16-0 record this season.
“It was exciting, it was fun,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “We go down to the last bracket, the whole deal. I wasn’t stressed, just excited to see who we’re going to play.”
Saint Mary’s played a bold schedule that included 10 wins against “Quad 1 and Quad 2” teams. Every loss came away from home. The Gaels were the only team to beat Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed, by 10 points.
Playing an ambitious schedule was one thing, but getting 25 wins out of it was above and beyond the call.
“It’s nice to get rewarded,” Bennett said. “To win 25 games is hard to do but that’s why we’re a No. 5 seed. You may play that schedule and get in with 21 or 22 — I think we would have got in with something like that. But they went ahead and finished it off and won a lot of those games.”
Saint Mary’s reacts to being No. 5 seed, highest in school history. pic.twitter.com/qgGRF3y07i
— Jerry McDonald (@Jerrymcd) March 13, 2022
Upon entering the gym, four students sat at a table, taking credit card orders for NCAA Tournament tickets.
Senior guard Tommy Kuhse, in his sixth year with the program, has experienced being left out of the tournament before and admitted to maybe having a case of “PTSD,” but conceded, “Obviously we wouldn’t have had all these people here if we didn’t know we were going to get in.”
It’s been a long road for the Gaels, who were 14-10 last season in a COVID year and lost a first-round NIT game to Western Kentucky. The previous year, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled, Saint Mary’s was in for a seed as high as No. 8.
“It’s really been a two-year season for this team,” Kuhse said. “I think we’ll look back on that and say that’s a pretty cool thing we did, but that’s not the biggest thing we’re talking about because we’ve got bigger goals than that.”
Knowing they were shoe-ins for the tournament, the Gaels could afford to be a little picky in terms of their destination rather than just being thankful to be invited to the dance. And Portland was a lot better sites such as Pittsburgh and Greenville, S.C.
“You want to stay on the West Coast, of course,” senior guard and St. Francis High product Logan Johnson said. “We were trying to get to San Diego, but we’ll take whatever is given to us. Even if we had to go to the East Coast, it’s about being ready to play and being ready for that moment.”
Should St Mary’s beat either Indiana or Wyoming in their first game, they would face the winner of UCLA (25-7 and seeded No. 4) vs. Akron (24-9, No. 13) on Saturday.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism