Faced with a USF team hungry to take a big step forward in the West Coast Conference standings, Saint Mary's College turned a close game at halftime into one of its most impressive wins of the season, beating the Dons 86-68 at sold-out War Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday.
The first-place Gaels (22-4, 10-1 WCC) now hold a 21/2-game lead over Gonzaga and USF with three games left in conference play.
Saturday's game followed much the same script as the teams' first meeting in Moraga, a 71-57 Saint Mary's win Jan. 13. The Gaels won the second half 50-34, turning good defense into instant offense to pull away.
"To have a good offensive game against their team, which is good defensively, on their court was a big step for us," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said.
The Gaels led just 36-34 at halftime, but a 14-2 run out of the break made all the difference.
A layup by Perris Blackwell brought USF (13-12, 7-3) back to a tie at 36. From there, Saint Mary's kicked things into gear. A deep 3-pointer by Mickey McConnell put the Gaels back up by three, and Mitchell Young added a basket down low to add to the lead.
Matthew Dellavedova took over for the next few possessions. He hit two free throws, then kissed two shots off the glass to put Saint Mary's up 47-36. The latter caused USF coach Rex Walters to call time out, hoping to stunt the Gaels' momentum.
Clint Steindl added a 3-pointer to push the score to 50-36, and by the time USF's Marko Petrovic ended the run with a three-point play at the 14:31 mark, the damage had been done.
"I think we were going to try to break through eventually, and it just happened straight after halftime," Dellavedova said. "It was good to get on a bit of a run to put it away."
The lead got as high as 20, as Saint Mary's continued to pile on the offense, going 20 of 23 at the line in the second half alone. Four players finished in double-figures, led by 19 from McConnell. Rashad Green and Mikey Williams each had 17 to lead USF.
What the second-half display showed was the balance that Saint Mary's can utilize when it is firing on all cylinders. The Gaels shot 54.9 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point land.
"They just wear you down because they continually make the right play," Walters said. "They continue to make the right play, continue to find the open man, and I thought we got away from that."
A trip to San Diego on Wednesday is the lone remaining road contest for the Gaels. Utah State comes to McKeon Pavilion on Saturday for an ESPN Bracketbusters game, then the Gaels play host to Gonzaga and Portland to finish out the conference schedule.
Note: McConnell was one of 30 to be named to the Naismith Award midseason watch list Friday. The award is given to the nation's best player.
Saint Mary's (22-4, 10-1 WCC) at San Diego (5-21, 1-10), 8 p.m., ESPN2