LAS VEGAS — The Saint Mary's College men's basketball team played its most critical game of the season Sunday night at Orleans Arena. The Gaels made sure to live up to the moment.
Saint Mary's punched its ticket to the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament with an emphatic 69-55 semifinal win over Portland, riding a huge second-half run and what was arguably its most impressive defensive effort of the year.
Center Omar Samhan had 16 points and 13 rebounds for the second-seeded Gaels (25-5), who will play No. 1 Gonzaga in today's final at 6 p.m. The Bulldogs, who earned a 77-62 victory over Loyola Marymount in Sunday's other semifinal, beat the Gaels 83-58 in last year's championship.
"It's a quick turnaround," Gaels guard Mickey McConnell said. "But it's not going to be hard to get excited for a WCC championship."
The Gaels led by seven with less than 15 minutes left in the second half before going on a 20-6 run over the next six-plus minutes to take a commanding 61-40 lead. McConnell had five points during the surge, including an NBA-range 3-pointer. He finished with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
Freshman Jorden Page came off the bench to score 14 points, as Portland (21-10) had trouble containing the Gaels' three-guard set.
Perhaps just as important, Page kept a lid on Portland guard Jared Stohl, who averaged close to 12 points per game but went 0-for-4 from the field with four free throws.
Stohl had 16 points against the Gaels in an 80-75 Pilots home win on Feb. 13. But only two of those points came in the second half, none when Page was guarding him.
"Jordy has done a great job both times on Stohl," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "That's the reason (the three-guard look) works. "... He helps us offensively, but his matchup on Stohl really helps us."
The victory might have gone a long way toward helping Saint Mary's secure an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament should it not win today's final.
With an RPI of 45 and the lack of what some perceive to be a marquee win, the Gaels in all likelihood needed a victory over Portland to stay in the hunt for an at-large berth. Now they have a chance to gain an automatic bid.
"There's a lot of ifs and buts with the bubble watch, but there's only one fact," Samhan said. "And the fact is if you win tomorrow, you're in. And that's the only thing we're worried about."
Portland finished the game shooting just 28.8 percent (15-for-52) from the floor, with starters Robin Smeulders and T.J. Campbell combining for only 15 points. Portland had been held below 60 points just twice in its previous 19 games. The Gaels and Pilots split their two regular season games.
Bennett said last week that his team needed to clean up a few things if it were going to beat the Pilots. Portland shot nearly 57 percent in the first half of its win last month and wound up with 18 points off Saint Mary's turnovers.
vs. Gonzaga, 6 p.m.