Bennett: Gaels will want to make a point

COMING FROM WHAT appear to be vastly different motivational directions, the glad-to-be-here Washington State Cougars will face a jilted group of St. Mary's Gaels Tuesday night in Moraga, Calif., in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. The Cougs, said their coach, Tony Bennett, probably played their way into the 32-team NIT by winning four of their last six regular-season games.

Conversely, the Gaels, it was thought, had a chance at gaining admittance into the 64-team NCAA tournament with their 26-6 record and their exceptional point guard, Patty Mills, recovered from a broken hand. But when the NCAA field was announced Sunday, the Gaels learned of their NIT destiny.

"We're just excited to have a chance to play," Bennett said of the Cougars, who posted a 17-15 record and became the third straight WSU team to earn a post-season assignment. "We played some good ball down the stretch."

St. Mary's played some good ball all season in finishing second in the West Coast Conference to Gonzaga, NCAA-bound as a No. 4 seed. Because of all that, the Gaels and their fans in 3,500-seat Mckeon Pavilion (8 p.m., ESPN2) figure to be at fever pitch against the Cougars.

"St. Mary's certainly will want to make a statement against us," Bennett said.

It appears St. Mary's has the tools to do it. Seeded No. 2 in the San Diego State Region of the NIT, the Gaels are led by Mills, a 6-foot sophomore from Australia who is averaging a team-high 17.8 points a game; 6-11 Omar Samhan, who has averages of 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds and 6-7 Diamon Simpson, the WCC defensive player of the year who is averaging 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds.

"Obviously, it's one of the best teams – maybe the best or second best – that did not get into the NCAA tournament," Bennett said. "I just know that we're going to play a team that is very complete."

Particularly with Mills healthy.

Going into a game at Gonzaga Jan. 29, the Gaels had won 15 straight and had a 19-1 record. It was during what became a 69-62 loss to Gonzaga that Mills suffered a broken hand that cost him nine games and his team four losses during his absence. But with or without Mills, the Gaels played well enough to win seven of their last eight games with the only loss to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament championship game.

That is the kind of momentum the seventh-seeded Cougars will have to overcome in order to continue playing. The way to do it, said Bennett, is to do well the things that have served the Cougars well all season, including playing better defense than they did in losing to UCLA in their most recent game, 64-53, in the Pac-10 tournament.

"The emphasis would be to get back to being as stingy as we can on the defensive end and then working for the quality shots offensively," Bennett said.

The St. Mary's-WSU winner will play the winner of a game between No. 3-seed South Carolina and No. 6 Davidson in the second round. The higher seed will host the game. On the other side of the San Diego bracket, top-seeded San Diego State takes on Weber State and the winner awaits either Kansas State or Illinois State.

WSU, it turns out, was one of just four Pac-10 teams that didn't get into the NCAA tournament, a situation Bennett said puts himself and the Cougars into a somewhat typical NIT attitude of pondering the season's might-have-beens.

"I think every team in the NIT could look at their season and say ‘if only' and kick themselves," Bennett said.

He pointed to the Cougars' loss at LSU and losses to USC and Oregon State at home as being particularly decisive in the team's destiny. For the season, they had a 5-12 record against teams that are in the NCAA tournament.

"But then we also hit some pretty big shots at certain times to win some games," Bennett said. "I think it (NCAA bid) was in reach, certainly. But the fact we went through a hard time and then caught our stride and fought our way back to earn our way into this situation makes me feel good."

The Cougars are scheduled to leave Monday for Moraga, which is located about 10 miles northeast of Oakland.


• The NIT's No. 1 seeds are Auburn, Creighton, Florida and San Diego State. Two of those teams – Florida and San Diego State – are coached by one-time NCAA Tourney champions: Billy Donovan and Steve Fisher.
• The Auburn region, whose winner will face the team coming out of the San Diego State region, features Virginia Tech and a potential rematch for WSU in Baylor.
• Three teams hail from Florida: the Gators, Jacksonville and Miami (Fla.).
• The first three rounds will be played at the campus site of the higher seeds. The semifinals and finals of the NIT will be played at Madison Square Garden in New York, March 31 and April 2.
• WSU is the only Pac-10 team to make the field of 32.
• In the 1990s, WSU made three NIT appearances around one trip to March Madness. The 1995 Cougs advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
• For a link to the entire NIT bracket breakdown, click here.

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