St. Mary’s won’t be intimidated facing UCLA in NCAA tournament

The specter of those four letters doesn’t scare them. Neither does the name John Wooden.

Those 11 national championships? They might as well have happened a lifetime ago — and did, given that no one on St. Mary’s roster was alive the last time UCLA was the final team standing in college basketball.

If you want an idea how intimidated the Gaels might be against one of the sport’s blue bloods when they face the Bruins on Saturday afternoon at Moda Center in the second round of the NCAA tournament, consider what they did in their postseason opener.

The tiny Catholic school from the Bay Area that has never made it past the Sweet 16 took down five-time national champion Indiana. By 29 points. It was the Hoosiers’ largest margin of defeat in an otherwise proud NCAA tournament history.

That’s what can happen when your veteran lineup is unshakable, you defend the rim and the three-point line with equal fervor, and your resume includes a recent victory over top-ranked Gonzaga.

“That’s real confidence,” said St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, whose fifth-seeded Gaels (26-7) believe they will be on equal footing with the fourth-seeded Bruins (26-7) beyond the teams’ identical records. “You talk about confidence, sometimes people spout off and they act like they’re confident but they’re not. When you beat a good team like Gonzaga … it is real.

“After that, we just feel like whoever we play is not going to be more talented than them, not going to be better coached than them, not going to be a better team than them. When you can beat them, then you feel like you can play with anybody.”

St. Mary’s handed the Bulldogs their only West Coast Conference loss of the season in late February thanks in part to a player who used to call Mick Cronin his coach. Guard Logan Johnson, one of the Gaels’ three senior starters, played for Cronin at Cincinnati as a freshman before Cronin departed for UCLA and Johnson for St. Mary’s.

“That’s my guy,” Cronin said of a player who went on to become a first team All-West Coast Conference selection. “I love him dearly and his entire family.”

The gritty Gaels are full of feel-good stories besides their usual array of agreeable Australians, point guard Tommy Kuhse going from onetime walk-on to 1,000-point scorer and big man Matthias Tass logging the first four double-doubles of his career this season.

The warmup jerseys players wear that read “No Quit” don’t constitute false advertising, the Gaels appearing to gain strength as games progress while outscoring their opponents by a combined 186 points in the second half. They’re also giving up just 60.3 points game, the fewest in Bennett’s 21 seasons at the school.

Cronin said he once encouraged Bennett to abandon his longtime post in search of greater resources and more ready-made success.

“What’s been accomplished at St. Mary’s is a modern miracle because he takes guys like that and turns ‘em into players, and it just never stops,” Cronin said, alluding to Bennett’s having produced NBA players Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, among others. “I used to tell Randy, ‘You’ve got to get out of there, what are you doing?’ … because I keep thinking he can’t keep pulling this out. It’s like you’re winning in poker with five cards in a seven-card stud game, and he just keeps pulling it off, with player development.”

Bennett has made it out of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend just once, advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2010 before falling to Baylor. His current team no longer fits the trope of plucky underdog, the Gaels having earned the highest seeding in school history.

St. Mary’s Tommy Kuhse drives against Indiana’s Xavier Johnson during the Gaels’ blowout victory Thursday. St. Mary’s resume this season includes a win over Gonzaga.

(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

UCLA guard Jules Bernard compared St. Mary’s to Pac-12 rival Washington State because of the Gaels’ quick, crafty guards who thrive in pick and rolls that are tough to defend.

“As a defensive team,” Bruins guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said, “we’re going to have to do everything we can to disrupt them and get them out of their system.”

After nearly stumbling in the first round one season after going all the way to the Final Four, the Bruins know the length of their postseason stay will largely hinge on making more shots than they did while shooting 35.2% against feisty Akron. That could be a chore against the Gaels, who held Indiana to 34% while leading by as many as 34 points.

Considering their in-state proximity, UCLA and St. Mary’s might seem like natural fits on one another’s nonconference schedules. But they haven’t faced each other since Tracy Murray, now UCLA’s radio analyst, poured in 24 points during the Bruins’ 123-93 romp … on Dec. 5, 1990.

Bennett said he would happily schedule UCLA as part of a home-and-home or neutral-site arrangement, but Cronin might not readily agree given what happened the last time he traveled to Moraga.

“He talked me into coming out,” Cronin said, referring to a 75-62 loss to Bennett’s Gaels in December 2004 during Cronin’s second season at Murray State. “I went to Claim Jumpers there in Moraga after, and he was there with the three officials.”

Everybody in the interview room laughed. Then Cronin’s wry smile disappeared, a nod to the little school with the big-time resolve trying to slay its next giant.

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