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#19 Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara eye berth in WCC final

A lack of star power has done nothing to limit #19 Saint Mary’s. In fact, it may be a key ingredient in the Gaels’ success.

Saint Mary’s will return to the court on Monday night for the first time since its epic upset of #1 Gonzaga when it faces third-seeded Santa Clara (21-10) in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tourney in Las Vegas.

The second-seeded Gaels (24-6) impressed the nation with their 67-57 takedown of the Bulldogs on Feb. 26, and the two squads will have another showdown Tuesday if they both win in the semifinals. Gonzaga plays San Francisco earlier on Monday.

Saint Mary’s halted the Bulldogs’ 17-game winning streak and defeated a #1 ranked team for just the second time in school history. Though assured a spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the Gaels would like to win the WCC tourney for the fifth time and claim the league’s automatic berth.

“We’ve got a lot of things that we still want to do, and check off the box,” Saint Mary’s guard Logan Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of people who have been here and done a lot of tremendous things here throughout the years. We know we want to go down as a great team that played here at Saint Mary’s, and we’re not there just yet. We still have a lot more to go.”

Johnson is one of four double-digit scorers in the Gaels’ balanced approach.

There is no top-flight standout like Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova or Jock Landale on this version of the Gaels. But Saint Mary’s is a tenacious group that holds opponents to an average of 59.4 points per game.

“We don’t have that kind of offensive firepower yet,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said of a squad that averages 69.6 points per game. “They’ve embraced it.”

First-team All-WCC selection Matthias Tass leads the team in scoring (12.5) and rebounding (6.2). WCC Sixth Man of the Year Tommy Kuhse averages 11.4 points and a team-best 3.6 assists, while second-team all-conference picks Johnson (11.1) and Alex Ducas (10.4) also routinely contribute.

Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek is impressed with the collection of players on the Gaels.

“The thing I always say when you play Saint Mary’s is you have to figure out a way to beat them because they don’t beat themselves,” Sendek said, “and that may be the greatest compliment you can give any team.”

The Broncos split the two regular-season meetings with the Gaels, losing 73-65 at Saint Mary’s on Jan. 20 before posting a 77-72 home win on Feb. 8.

Santa Clara rolled to a 91-67 win over Portland on Saturday to reach the semifinals and knows the task. It must win two more games to crash the NCAA Tournament.

The Broncos haven’t been part of March Madness since 1996, when they were part of the field for the third time in four seasons during the career of legendary Steve Nash.

Santa Clara also has four players scoring in double digits, led by first-team All-WCC performers Jalen Williams (18.1 points, 4.1 assists) and Josip Vrankic (15.3 points). Second-team choice Keshawn Justice (13.1 points, team-leading seven rebounds) and PJ Pipes (12.6) also average more than Saint Mary’s leading scorer.

“As a team, I think we’ve got the offensive thing nailed down,” Vrankic said of a squad averaging 78.3 points and allowing 72.1. “The thing we need to improve — and we are improving — is on the defensive end. … If we guard and we get out into transition, we’re dangerous.”

Pipes averaged 18.5 points and Williams 18 in the two regular-season matchups. Kuhse averaged 16.5 points for Saint Mary’s.

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