No. 17 Saint Mary's has an impressive turnaround to move to the verge of an outright WCC title

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — When Saint Mary's stumbled to five losses in the first eight games of a season that began with high expectations, the immediate goals were much more modest than conference titles and NCAA Tournament berths.

“I was hoping for 4-5 when we were 3-5,” coach Randy Bennett said. “That’s exactly how we approached it.”

The 17th-ranked Gaels (23-6, 14-0 West Coast Conference) did that and haven't slowed down a bit.

They have won 20 of the past 21 games to move to the verge of denying perennial power Gonzaga a share of the regular-season conference title for just the second time in the past 24 seasons.

Saint Mary's has already clinched the top seed in the WCC tournament next month in Las Vegas for a second straight season and can win its first outright conference title since 2012 by winning at Pepperdine on Thursday night or against No. 23 Gonzaga at home on Saturday.

“We knew just keep pounding the rock and eventually it’s going to break,” forward Alex Ducas said about the mindset following the shaky start. “You don’t know if it’s going to be the fifth time hitting the rock or the thousandth time, but eventually it will break. We knew that. That’s all part of maturing as a team.”

The Gaels came into the season ranked 23rd for the fourth preseason ranking in school history despite losing two-time all-conference guard Logan Johnson and defensive stopper Kyle Bowen to graduation.

Ducas had to work his way back to health from a back injury and Bennett had to incorporate Augustas Marciulionis — the son or former NBA star Sarunas — and Joshua Jefferson into the lineup.

The early results were lacking, with the Gaels facing a difficult nonconference schedule that led to losses against Weber State, San Diego State, Xavier, Utah and Boise State.

“You got to always be the hunter,” center Mitchell Saxen said. “I think early in the season, sometimes we were afraid to lose, whether that was coming in ranked at the start of the year or whatever it may be. But we’ve really just grown as a team there.”

The Gaels have won 15 straight games for the longest active winning streak in the nation and have set a school record with 14 straight conference wins.

They have been dominant in that stretch, leading the nation in point differential (plus 21.3 per game), ranking second in rebounding differential (plus 11.1 per game) and fifth in opponent shooting percentage (39.2%).

They have even survived a season-ending knee injury to Jefferson and have kept rolling.

“It could have gone a lot of different ways, but they just kept hanging in there and getting better and staying together," Bennett said. “You can get beat up by losses and especially a team that is as young as we are. I know it sounded like we had a lot of good players coming back. They weren’t good yet. They had to become good."

Bennett has made a career of developing players since taking over a two-win team in 2001 that played in a tiny gym in a Bay Area market focused on professional teams.

He tapped a pipeline of Australian players early in his tenure to build a program that has become one of the most successful on the West Coast with 16 straight non-pandemic seasons with at least 20 wins.

The Gaels have the eighth-most wins in the country over the past 15 seasons and have won either a share of the regular-season conference title or the conference tournament seven times in that span.

This year's version is one of Bennett's most balanced with a strong backcourt led by local product Aidan Mahaney and Marciulionis, the outside shooting of Ducas, who has made 58% of his 3-pointers the past 12 games, and the strong post play from Saxen.

“Really it’s a pick your poison situation when you play Saint Mary’s," San Diego coach Steve Lavin said.

Now the next question for the Gaels will be whether they can translate this run into NCAA Tournament success. Saint Mary's is set to make its third straight tournament appearance for the first time in school history but the Gaels haven't made it past the opening weekend since going to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010.

But first is the more immediate goal of winning the conference.

“Our whole deal is one step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time,” Bennett said. “That’s where I would say we’ve been good. And sometimes they believe in it and sometimes they don’t. These guys have. You can hear it when they talk. They talk right. That’s what gives us a chance.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball