MORAGA (AP) — Mickey McConnell has come a long way from the freshman who struggled even to get on the court while playing behind future NBA guard and Aussie sensation Patty Mills.

The player who fans in the Saint Mary’s student section hoped could score just a basket at the end of blowouts has turned himself into one of the most efficient offensive players in the nation.

He’s one of the country’s top distributors at point guard, a confident 3-point shooter with range well beyond the arc and an improved penetrator who can create offense off the dribble.

McConnell is also one of the biggest reasons why Saint Mary’s (17-3, 5-0 WCC) heads into its annual showdown at Gonzaga (13-7, 3-2) on Thursday at the top of the conference standings despite the loss of last year’s star big man, Omar Samhan, to graduation.

“He’s made a big jump. As big as any we’ve had,” coach Randy Bennett said of his senior guard. “We’ve had some guys who have really improved. Omar really improved. But Mickey probably made the biggest jump from day one until now. As a freshman he didn’t play that much and now he’s one of the better players in the conference.”

After playing sparingly as a freshman and playing a key role after Mills went down with an injury the following season, McConnell made a big leap last season.

But the improvement did not come without a few pot holes, most notably a zero-point, four-turnover debacle at Gonzaga last February that put a dent into the Gaels’ hopes for an NCAA tournament bid.

With Saint Mary’s hoping to avoid another torturous stint on the tournament bubble, McConnell responded the next time he faced the Zags to help secure an automatic bid.

On a night that Samhan struggled, McConnell delivered 26 points and six assists in the 81-62 win over the Bulldogs in the WCC final in Las Vegas that helped send the Gaels on their run to the third round of the NCAA tournament.

“We’d beaten them before in my career but I hadn’t played well,” McConnell said. “I hadn’t played well up there at all so it was nice to get that off my back and give me some added confidence.”

That carried over into a strong NCAA tournament run, highlighted by his high-arcing 25-footer that banked high off the glass and in to give the Gaels the lead for good late in their second-round upset against No. 2 seeded Villanova.

McConnell has been even better this season, leading the team in scoring (14.6 points), while ranking in the top 10 in the nation in assists (6.5), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.93) and being one made free throw shy of being in the exclusive club of players who have made at least 50 percent of their shots, 40 percent of their 3-pointers and 90 percent of their free throws.

“It was just a matter of getting the minutes and getting the opportunity to get comfortable and play through some struggles,” he said. “You come in and you want to be successful. I kept doing what I thought I needed to do to be able to play at this level.  People are probably surprised. But coming out of high school I thought I could contribute and play well.”

The past few years have shown just what Bennett has built on the bucolic campus in Moraga. After riding Mills to an NCAA tournament bid in 2008 and a controversial near-miss the following season, the Gaels were supposed to take a step back when he left early for the NBA.

Instead, Samhan led Saint Mary’s to perhaps its most successful season ever, featuring the win in the conference championship game over Gonzaga in Las Vegas and the run to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

Now the Gaels are thriving without Samhan and fellow big man Ben Allen.

“It says you’re a program,” Bennett said. “That’s what we’re selling. It’s a program. Nobody’s bigger than the program, including the coach. We want to be a good program and be the best we can every year. The team comes first. That’s how we recruit them and that’s our mantra.”

McConnell epitomizes that attitude.

He comes from a long line of successful coaches in his family.

His father, Rick, won his 500th game as a high school coach last month, while his grandfather, Dick McConnell, is still the winningest coach in Arizona high school history.

Bennett credits a lifetime around basketball for McConnell’s sterling on-court IQ that allows the coach to let his players control the game.

“He might miss shots or make a turnover but all his decisions and thought process are right on,” Bennett said.

McConnell’s quiet excellence provides a far different face to the Gaels than the boisterous fans at Gonzaga are used to. The student section Kennel Club has spent the past four years razzing and harassing Samhan with pictures, signs and taunts befitting of the “the most hated man in Spokane.”

While taking the leadership mantle from Samhan, McConnell is happy to leave that other role to his former teammate.

When asked who would get most of the venom from the Gonzaga fans, McConnell responded: “Hopefully probably still Omar, knowing the imprint he left.”


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