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Saint Mary’s beats Middle Tenn 67-54 in First Four

DAYTON, Ohio – Matthew Dellavedova’s first shot from behind the arc was right on target. So was the next one less than a minute later.

Saint Mary’s career scoring leader had finally found his touch at tournament time.

Dellavedova emerged from a deep shooting slump by scoring 22 points on Tuesday night, and the Gaels got off to a good start in their second straight NCAA tournament appearance, beating Middle Tennessee 67-54 in the First Four.

Saint Mary’s (28-6) makes a quick trip to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play sixth-seeded Memphis on Thursday.

And the Gaels can thank their point guard, who is back in the flow. He’d been only 1 of 18 from behind the arc coming into the game, though no one would know it by the way that first one went in.

“There was no sigh of relief,” Dellavedova said. “Somebody had told me that I was 1 for 18 in my last three (games). That didn’t even enter my head. I’ve always got confidence the next one’s going down.”

Saint Mary’s, a No. 11 seed, is making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in its history. The Gaels were a 10th seed when they reached the round of 16 in 2010 before losing to Baylor. Not so good last year, when they dropped their opening game to Purdue 72-69 as a No. 7 seed.

With four starters back and Dellavedova handling the ball and making the biggest shots, the Gaels were too much for Middle Tennessee (28-6), which was making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years.

Credit Dellavedova for making a difference, as he has all season. The point guard went 7 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 7 behind the arc, and had four assists and six rebounds.

“When he does that, he may be the best point guard in college basketball, when he shoots the ball like that,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.

Tweety Knight led Middle Tennessee with 16 points. The Blue Raiders went only 4 of 12 from behind the arc, hitting one fewer 3-pointer than Dellavedova.

With those four starters back, Saint Mary’s is looking for one of its best finishes yet. The Gaels did pretty much what they wanted all season long, except for one thing: Beating rival Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s lost only three times in its last 22 games, all three times to the Bulldogs.

Fortunately for the Gaels, they put a lot of space between themselves and the Zags this week. No. 1 Gonzaga snagged the top seed in the West Regional and is playing in Salt Lake City. The Gaels get to stay in the Midwest for a while.

Middle Tennessee counted it a breakthrough just to be playing in the First Four – the Blue Raiders hadn’t been there since 1989.

They won the Sun Belt’s regular-season title and were expected to win the tournament and their league’s automatic bid, but were upset in the semifinals, ending a 17-game winning streak. They had to sweat out a few days before finding out that the NCAA selection committee picked them over defending champion Kentucky and other basketball blue bloods for an at-large bid.

One main reason: Consistency, especially on the road. The Blue Raiders didn’t lose two games in a row all season until their last two tournament games.

Dellavedova set the tone early, and put Middle Tennessee in a hole. He had a pair of 3s as well as a steal and a layup, helping Saint Mary’s pull ahead 13-9. After his second 3-pointer fell, Davis called a timeout to get the Blue Raiders reset on defense.

That didn’t faze Dellavedova, though. He hit a floater in the lane, passed to Brad Waldow for a dunk, then drew a foul and made a pair of free throws during an 11-2 run that closed the first half and gave Saint Mary’s a 29-20 lead.

“We’re not going to win games like this if Matt doesn’t shoot it well, or shoot it decent,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “He’s going to play whether he makes shots or not. But if he makes shots, it gives us a chance to separate. If he didn’t make shots, the game would have gone to the wire.

“But he made them.”

The Blue Raiders repeatedly missed close-up shots and managed only two free throws in the final 6 minutes, shooting 32 percent from the field overall in the half.

Dellavedova showed he was comfortable in the big moments, pumping up teammates with a pat or fist bump and slicing into the lane and pulling the defense to him like a magnet. He was part of Australia’s backcourt in the 2012 Olympics in London, and it showed.

Dellavedova hit a pair of long 3s for a 39-28 lead early in the second half. Middle Tennessee pushed the pace and got its first significant run of the game, a 7-0 spurt that cut it to 41-38 with 12:38 to go.

Dellavedova had a 2-minute break on the bench to rest, then came back and hit his fifth 3-pointer of the game, helping the Gaels pull ahead 54-42 with 6 minutes to go. Middle Tennessee never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.

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