STOCKTON -- With assistant Eran Ganot running the team while head coach Randy Bennett serves a five-game suspension, Saint Mary's College defeated Pacific 88-80 in its West Coast Conference opener Monday night.
It was the Gaels' first game without Bennett, who is prohibited from all head coaching duties until Jan. 10 as part of NCAA sanctions handed to the program in March for a series of rules violations.
With Ganot as acting head coach, the Gaels rode some hot 3-point shooting and balanced scoring to win at the Spanos Center against conference newcomer Pacific (9-3).
"We know our guys in the locker room were thinking about Coach (Bennett), and we told them how well they represented him out there," Ganot said.
Ganot, who is in the fourth year of his second stint at Saint Mary's, said the experience was a little weird for him but made easier by the team's focus.
"At one point, I'm thinking do I even sit in that (head coach's) chair?" he said. "I kind of didn't. I tried to stand most of the game."
Saint Mary's (10-3) drained 13 of 26 shots from beyond the arc, led by Beau Levesque, Stephen Holt and Kerry Carter, as it pulled away with about 10 minutes left.
All five starters scored in double figures with Levesque contributing a team-high and season-high 18 points. Afterward, the senior forward downplayed Bennett's absence.
"We're a very detail-oriented team, we stick to the same schedule every game day, so it really wasn't much different other than Coach B wasn't here," Levesque said.
Holt finished with 15 points and eight assists. Carter, a junior college transfer, made his third consecutive start at guard and also finished with 15 points. He was 4 of 6 from beyond the arc.
Brad Waldow added 14 points and eight rebounds for the Gaels, who led nearly the entire way.
Pacific, which rejoined the WCC this season after more than a 40-year hiatus, got a career-high 23 points from Andrew Bock and got within 85-80 in the final minute as Saint Mary's struggled with free throws down the stretch.
But the Gaels held on to snap a three-game skid during which they struggled defensively at last week's Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. The Gaels now head off on a tough trip north to Gonzaga and Portland later this week with some momentum.
"We went back to basics and watched ourselves," Ganot said. "I don't know if we made significant improvement, but the separation today came early in the second half and it was because of our defense. It's not going to come overnight, but we have to keep improving on the defensive end."
After the Tigers cut Saint Mary's lead to 45-44 just after halftime, the Gaels went on a 7-0 run. When Levesque drained a corner 3-pointer with 12:53 to play, Saint Mary's had its first double-digit lead of the night.
"It's good to get some confidence, and this was against a really good team on the road," Ganot said.
The Gaels were without reserve forward Garrett Jackson, their third-leading rebounder, who suffered a knee injury in Hawaii.
Saint Mary's (10-3, 1-0 West Coast Conference) at Gonzaga (12-2, 2-0), 6 p.m. ESPN2