Heading into Thursday night's highly anticipated matchup between No. 13 Gonzaga and West Coast Conference foe Saint Mary's, Gaels coach Randy Bennett had been happy with the lack of attention paid to his team. Despite the 17 wins and the preseason prognosticators leaning his team's way for the conference title, he was content with slipping out of the spotlight and into Gonzaga's shadow.
Well, goodbye anonymity.
Thursday night's 74-71 upset of Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington, was huge for the Gaels -- who entered the night winners of 12 straight but losers of 12 of their previous 14 against the Bulldogs -- for a variety of reasons.
Most important, if Saint Mary's, which is currently viewed by ESPN NCAA bracketologist Joe Lunardi as a 9-seed, was going to assert itself not just in its own conference but on the national landscape, it had to win this game -- on the road and against the team that would likely have been scribbled into the conference champion column (again) in pen if it had won Thursday.
With a solid trio of Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson, the Gaels (18-2, 7-0 WCC) are certainly built to get to the NCAA tournament with few blemishes, but Thursday night they had to prove to us -- and most likely themselves -- that they could be more than just a fun mid-major and beat a Gonzaga team that's a little down talent-wise but is still on a relatively higher level as far pure talent and potential.
There's really no gray area for a team with these components in a season like this. One way or the other, this game was going to be a defining moment for these Gaels: They were either going to show the nation they belonged or they weren't.
In a hostile environment and during one of the most chaotic games you'll see, Saint Mary's did exactly that.
And it says a lot that the Gaels were able not only to win, but to win in the fashion they did. This was a game that featured 22 lead changes (19 coming in the first half) and nine ties, but Saint Mary's didn't grab its first lead of the second half until Landale's layup at the end of a 9-0 run gave the Gaels a 65-63 lead with 5 minutes, 54 seconds left. That was their first lead since going up 32-30 with 5:54 remaining in the first half.
The Gaels were also desperately looking for any way to guard 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Rui Hachimura, who was nearly unstoppable with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting off the bench for the Zags (16-4, 6-1).
Saint Mary's uncharacteristically sloppy first-half moments led to seven turnovers, which contributed to 10 Gonzaga points, and leading man Landale had just nine points in the first 20 minutes of play.
It was hard enough for the Gaels to look at the scoreboard and see their 62 percent first-half shooting (56 percent from 3) still left them trailing by four.
And as the second half continued, you couldn't help but wonder if this game was fitting into the worn narrative that Saint Mary's just isn't ready to truly contend with the Zags. But as Landale and Hermanson got hot, Gonzaga started to cool and tighten. Even when Saint Mary's took that lead, there as a feeling of unease for the Gaels. There was too much back-and-forth for the road team to stomach, right?
Well, in the clutch moments, it was Saint Mary's that finished and found its own (right) way.
Landale's 17 points in the second half -- on an impressive 8-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds -- combined with Hermanson's 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting propelled the Gaels to be the better team late, as Gonzaga's Silas Melson, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr. couldn't find much of a rhythm at all, combing for just eight points after intermission.
The second half was the Gaels' time to shine, and they did, with the reemergence of their top players, 22 points in the paint, only one turnover, and by ending the game making five of their final seven buckets, compared to Gonzaga making just one of its last seven.
Naturally, Thursday night was a wake-up call for the Zags, who are now looking up at the Gaels atop the WCC standings, but it was also a wake-up call for Saint Mary's, which proved a lot to itself.
These are the victories long-term tournament teams have. Now, this has to become a launching point for a Gaels outfit that's no longer playing behind anyone.