MORAGA -- Saint Mary's took the first step in ending the regular season on a high note by holding off Portland 70-61 at McKeon Pavilion on Thursday.

The Gaels weren't at their best against the short-handed Pilots, but SMC was good enough to lead the entire second half. Another strong game from senior point guard Stephen Holt (26 points) helped.

Now comes the harder part.

Rival Gonzaga comes to town Saturday, and the Zags represent both a challenge and an opportunity.

With Saint Mary's needing to win the West Coast Conference tournament to make another NCAA appearance, a victory over the outright regular season champion on Senior Night would certainly help the Gaels' momentum heading into Las Vegas next week.

"We want to head into Vegas on the right foot, and if we can beat the number one team in our league, confidencewise that will give us a lot in Vegas," Holt said.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said, "It's never too late to break through, and that's what we're trying to do."

But Saint Mary's (21-9, 11-6 WCC) will need a crisper effort against Gonzaga and beyond than it had versus Portland (15-14, 7-10), which stayed close throughout even minus injured starters Kevin Bailey and Alec Wintering.

Portland had the rebounding edge 34-25, and Saint Mary's struggled to contain Thomas van der Mars, who finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds.

"Tonight we were choppy," Bennett said. "We weren't good defensively, and we weren't good on the boards. I think if you want to be a championship-caliber team, you have to be good in those two areas."

Saint Mary's led 55-46 with 7:08 left after Paul McCoy drove for a layup, but Portland responded with a 7-0 run. Saint Mary's didn't let it get any closer, though, scoring seven straight points, then making enough free throws down the stretch.

Brad Waldow added 14 points and nine rebounds, and Kerry Carter hit four 3-pointers for 12 points.

Coming off a career-high 35-point game in a win over Santa Clara, Holt again shouldered much of the scoring load.

"I just wanted to be extra aggressive and try to take the pressure off Brad and the rest of my teammates and just try to create," Holt said. "The ball has been going in for me."

Saint Mary's relied heavily on the 3-pointer in the first half on its way to a 34-30 lead. The Gaels connected on 8 of 20 shots from beyond the arc in the opening period against the Pilots' zone defense. They were 2 of 4 on two-point field goals in that same span.

SATURDAY'S GAME
Gonzaga (24-6, 14-3, WCC) at Saint Mary's (21-9, 11-6),
7 p.m. ESPN2