MORAGA, CA—After a disappointing loss at Northern Iowa last Sunday, Saint Mary’s needed to make a statement but the Gaels came out of both halves sluggish and let Rhode Island hang around.
Then Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque came off the bench to give the team a spark, which carried Saint Mary’s to the 82-59 win over Rhode Island Thursday night.
“The key for us is always going to be do we bring that defensive intensity, can we sustain that defense,” Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said. “That’s what we did tonight.”
Holt was in only his second game back after a bruised left knee had kept him out of four games. The junior guard missed four games last season with a partially torn right MCL.
“I was kind of a little more timid in the Northern Iowa game since it was my first game back,” Holt said. “I had a really good practice yesterday and I knew going into today’s game that I could go all out on defense.”
The Gaels (9-3) remain prefect at home with a 6-0 record as they begin a four-game homestand, taking them into West Coast Conference play.
Rhode Island (4-8) had won three of its last four games heading into the game against Saint Mary’s after losing six of its first seven.
Rhode Island came out of the half down nine and immediately put pressure on Saint Mary’s.
The Gaels, who had committed 17 turnovers in their previous game against Northern Iowa, committed two quick ones and the Rams used back-to-back layups to cut the lead to 40-36.
Saint Mary’s was quickly able to regain control after two steals and four points from Stephen Holt.
“It’s always nice to have Holt back into the lineup,” Levesque said. “We clearly missed his intensity, especially on defense, but he attacks the basket well and scores a lot for us.”
Holt finished the night with a team-high 17 points and six rebounds.
Levesque also helped the Gaels put together a 14-0 run with five of his 14 points during the run, giving them the 54-38 lead.
“It started at the end of the first half,” Levesque said. “We really went on a run, we really took that momentum into the season half and we really got it going.”
Levesque was perfect from the floor (4-for-4) and the free throw line (5-for-5).
Matthew Dellavedova continued to help Saint Mary’s in other ways than scoring and picked up his first double-double of the season with 12 points and 10 assists.
“Even if he doesn’t score, he’s always effect the game positively,” Levesque said of Dellavedova. “He’s always going to help our team win.”
The Gaels were also aided by a dominant performance on the boards as they outrebounded Rhode Island 42-17. They had five players with at least five rebounds.
“We knew going in they average minus-5 on the boards so we realized that was a place where we could really exploit them,” Levesque said. “We just attacked every time, balls bounced our way, but we feel we did a really good job on the boards tonight.”
The Rams strung together an 8-0 run in the first half that began with a fastbreak windmill dunk by Jordan Hare.
Their next nine points came via the three and Rhode Island went up 24-17.
Rhode Island kept the pressure on the Gaels and a layup from Mike Powell gave them the 26-21 lead with 6:49 left in the half.
That would be the last time Rhode Island would score before the break. Rhode Island finished the half missing nine of its final 10 shots after beginning 9-for-16.
James Walker hit a three as part of a 14-0 run by Saint Mary’s to end the half, giving them the 35-26 lead.
The Gaels made two of its first 10 shots but finished the half shooting 12-for-21. Saint Mary’s dominated on the glass 27-8.
Saint Mary’s has not played Rhode Island since 1996.
Saint Mary’s, by Bennett’s account, is still a work in progress. The Gaels have been inconsistent defensively (partly due to Holt’s absence) and it has cost them games.
“We’ve been making inroads as far as becoming a good defensive team but we’re still inconsistent,” Bennett said. “We were inconsistent at Northern Iowa. We were pretty good for probably 25 minutes and the last 10 minutes we weren’t very good and it cost us a game.”
Holt still getting back in flow
Holt said the knee “feel great” after returning from the bone bruise in his left knee.
But his aggressiveness on defense returned after a conversation with Bennett.
“There is going to be some apprehension there,” Bennett said. “He’s going to be a little cautious.”
I had a conversation with him yesterday about it and we addressed it and in practice there was a changed Stephen,” he said. “He’s not that good if he’s cautious, if he’s playing worried about things.”
Follow Zack Farmer on Twitter: @Zack_Farmer