SANTA CLARA, Calif.— It was easy doubt to Saint Mary’s Gaels up to this point of the season.

Aside from a win over No. 17 Colorado State, there hasn’t been a signature win for the Gaels this season that college basketball fans could point to that would suggest the Gaels are the mid-major giants that they have been in years past. Losses to Missouri State (No. 155 in Kenpom) and Weber State (No. 107) haven’t helped change that narrative either.

But Saturday’s 73-49 over Santa Clara Saturday might be the win Saint Mary’s needed to shut the doubters up.

“I feel like we came into today with an edge,” said Saint Mary’s guard Aidan Mahaney. “We really took part on the defensive end. I think that was the key. Offensively, we were bound to start clicking. And you know, it’s an every game thing for us to still continue to get better, but defensively is where we locked in.”

Santa Clara, who was coming off one of the best wins in program history when it beat No. 23 Gonzaga Thursday night, was throughly outclassed from the jump.

After scoring the first nine points of the game, Santa Clara closed the gap to 9-6 after Jalen Benjamin’s 3-pointer. But that’s as close as the Broncos would get all game as Saint Mary’s went on a 21-0 run from that point that sucked all the life from a Bronco squad that looked to be coming for the top spot in the West Coast Conference.

The Broncos didn’t get to double-digits in scoring as a team until the 2:40 mark of the first half.

“I think you have to give Saint Mary’s a tremendous amount of credit,” said Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek. “I thought they came out and really took it to us and were playing at a high, high level on both ends of the floor.”

The knock on Saint Mary’s has always been their inability to guard teams who have above-average athleticism as evident by the Gael’s second round loss to UCONN in the NCAA tournament last season in which Adama Sanogo torched them to the tune of 24 points and eight rebounds. Or this season when the Gaels were demolished by San Diego State 79-54 back in November.

Though Santa Clara isn’t San Diego State athletically, they do have players who have NBA-type athleticism on the floor. Adama Bal, who was the hero in Thursday’s win over Gonzaga, could end up being an NBA prospect this year or next. Saint Mary’s throughly shut him down as Bal scored just four points on 1 of 9 shooting from the field while turning the ball over three times.

Sendek said he has confidence Bal will return to form, but has a lot to grow from in Saturday’s loss as well.

“We’ll look at the tape, watch it together and have some teaching points,” Sendek said. “Adama has been brilliant this season. I think you got to once again give St. Mary’s a lot of credit. I mean, they did a heck of a job on him defensively, and he’s a good player. He’ll bounce back.”

Offensively, the Gaels were who they have been all season: efficient and patient.

Saint Mary’s shot 48.4% from the floor and hit seven 3-pointers. They turned the ball over just seven times and had zero in the first half of play. Mahaney showed why he was nominated for preseason Nasmith Player of the Year with a 18-point performance. Luke Barrett had arguably his performance of the season with 17 points and six rebounds — a good stat line for one of Saint Mary’s best shooters who has been in a cold spell as of late.

“It’s like having a sixth starter,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett. “At first he was just a play hard guy, but we we think he’s more than that. He was WCC Player of the Week a couple of weeks ago, so he’s gained some confidence.

Saturday’s win keeps the train rolling for the Gaels. Saint Mary’s is the top dog in the WCC with an undefeated 4-0 record and haven’t lost since two days before Christmas. In the last four games, the Gaels have held their opponents to 58.75 points per game.

On the flip side, Santa Clara suffers a bad loss at home after its best start in 20 years. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Broncos rebound and find a way to stay in the conference title race or if this loss will deplete some of the juice they’ve built so far in conference play.

The three Bay Area WCC teams currently sit atop of the conference with Saint Mary’s at No.1, San Francisco at No. 2 and Santa Clara at No. 3. Saint Mary’s will have a crack at San Francisco next Saturday while Santa Clara stays in Northern California when it faces Pacific on Thursday.

Photo courtesy of Saint Mary’s Athletics

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