MORAGA (CBS/AP) — It’s the little things that are keeping Santa Clara winless in the West Coast Conference this season.
Turnovers at key times. Lane violations during free throw attempts. Not closing out on defense.
The Broncos managed to do a bit of all three against No. 16 Saint Mary’s and couldn’t sustain their momentum after erasing most of a 14-point lead in the second half, losing to the Gaels 82-67 on Saturday night.
“When you’re sans the leadership that you need to make sure those things don’t happen, you’re going to learn the hard way and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. “Hopefully these guys that are going through that process can become the guys that make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
It didn’t help that the Broncos played their seventh straight game without guard Kevin Foster. The WCC’s leading scorer at 17.8 points a game, Foster has not played since being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving Jan. 21.
Even he might not have been able to prevent Santa Clara from getting swept by the Gaels for a third straight year.
The Broncos (8-17, 0-12) trailed 64-61 in the second half but went nearly five minutes without a basket down the stretch, allowing the Gaels to pull away.
Denzel Johnson scored 17 points and Niyi Harrison added 12 points for Santa Clara (8-17, 0-12), which hasn’t beat Saint Mary’s since the 2008-09 season.
“We dealt with a lot of adversity in the very beginning, and certainly in the last three weeks it’s changed and been even more adverse,” Keating said. “That’s hard for some of these guys to understand, so we have to play through it and when the dust settles hopefully we’ll be able to gather ourselves and get ready for the last push.”
Rob Jones had 25 points and 12 rebounds, Matthew Dellavedova added 16 points and 10 assists, and Stephen Holt scored 11 points to help Saint Mary’s (23-3, 12-1) overcome a slow start and pull away in the second half. The Gaels improved to 16-0 at home with only two games left at McKeon Pavilion this season.
Patrons packed in the aisles and up to the rafters at standing-room-only McKeon Pavilion. With a 73-59 loss at Gonzaga two nights earlier still fresh, the program’s rival tried to make it sting even worse.
Harrison provided an immediate burst, finishing with a three-point play over Jordan Page that gave the Broncos a 19-16 lead. Santa Clara withstood every momentum swing — keeping most brief — and never let the Gaels pull away.
At least for a half.
The Gaels galloped past the Broncos with a strong finish to the half and a stronger start to the second, bringing fans roaring to their feet after Brad Waldow’s put-back tip at the buzzer. Two big plays in the first minutes following the break sent Santa Clara home for good.
Holt converted a difficult layup while getting draped by Cowels and Rob Jones made a short jumper as Cowels fouled him moments later. Both missed the free throw that followed.
The 22-7 run between the first and second half put Saint Mary’s ahead 54-40, and all the Gaels had to do was hold on against an inferior opponent the rest of the way — something they’ve done plenty of this year.
Santa Clara chopped the deficit to three with 8:51 remaining with some surprisingly streaking shooting before Saint Mary’s took control again. Dellavedova had a layup and also fed Waldow for a dunk that helped put the Gaels back in front 71-61.
“Santa Clara is playing for (its) record,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said.
The victory kept Saint Mary’s in prime position to end Gonzaga’s streak of 11 straight seasons with at least a share of the WCC crown — and likely the high NCAA tournament seeding that comes with it.
But as last season showed, one loss can change plans quickly.
The Bulldogs beat Saint Mary’s in the last year’s regular-season finale to split the title and again won in the league championship game. The two losses kept the Gaels out of the NCAA tournament.
Saint Mary’s is one of eight teams in Division I — along with WCC rival Gonzaga and newcomer BYU — to win at least 25 games in each of the last four seasons. The ranking this week in the AP poll is the highest for Saint Mary’s since the 1958-59 season.
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