No easy baskets for St. Mary's

An under-the-radar Bay Area team makes moves toward the NCAA tournament. Plus: A college men's basketball roundup

St. Mary's teammates wait to hear whether their underdog squad will head to the NCAA tournament

SPORTS It was January in Nashville, and it was cold as balls. Snow had fallen two days earlier and was still lying on the skinny slivers of road where the cars hadn't repeatedly passed over yet. Inside Vanderbilt University's Memorial Gym, a cold reality of a different sort was being served up by the Vanderbilt Commodores to San Francisco's accomplished St Mary's men's basketball team, ranked 22nd in the nation by the Associated Press at the time.

For those who don't keep a close eye on college basketball, St. Mary's team had flown under the national radar for the past few years until it really began turning heads about a year ago. That's when the tiny Catholic college from the East Bay town of Moraga upset second-seeded Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1959. At viewing parties across the country, salsa was spit out of mouths, glass coffee tables were karate-chopped, remote controls were flung to shatter priceless antique mirrors. And the following Monday that cocky asshole from accounting had to walk over to the 20-year old intern who'd probably never filled out an office pool bracket in his life and hand him a wad of his beer money.

None of that magic came with St. Mary's Gaels to Nashville. They lost 89-70. It still ranks as their worst loss of the season, and it came on the heels of 11 straight wins. But as they prepare for this week's West Coast conference tournament in Las Vegas and then the national tournament — assuming they qualify — should all conclusions drawn from one game like this one be thrown out the window? Or is it noteworthy that some weaknesses were exposed?

"Definitely you can learn a lot of lessons," says Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova, sitting and facing a cluster of postgame cameras and reporters after the Vanderbilt game. "And we're going to learn some from today." With the Australian's shaggy hairdo, it might help to imagine a pothead younger brother, if you've got one, or at least a very misplaced surfer. That kind of stigma was amplified, and seemingly justified, once Dellavedova was bombarded by strange Southern interviewers with slow drawls that must have seemed pretty foreign from the perspective of the sophomore, who himself speaks in deep, slow-cadenced Aussie near-mumbles. He hesitates after every question and glances over at his coach, as if to make sure he's heard everything right. "Definitely it could have been a different ending if we could have taken the crowd out of it," he says. "But, yeah, we did have chances. We just didn't make the most of 'em today."

But Dellavedova didn't really owe anyone much explanation after the loss. He scored 19 points, while other usual hot hands, like the more conventional scorer Mickey McConnell (six points), went suspiciously silent. And Dellavedova maintained his focus through the Vandy student section's syncopated chants of his nickname, "Psych-o Cave-Man ... clap, clap, clap-clap-clap," every time he stepped up to the free throw line in Nashville.

Dellavedova is one of the best hard-nosed street ball type players in America. A deft ball-handler, his name can usually be found among the country's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Some of those unorthodox shots he makes really drew out a humorous cross-firing of spattered curse words from the flustered opposing fans in Nashville.

The problem was that after playing so well early in the season, the St. Mary's team had to seriously struggle against the Commodores' brutish man-to-man defense. St. Mary's was limited to 41.9 percent accuracy in shooting from the field, and went 6 for 23 from the three point range. The Gaels came in second in the country in field goal percentage (.511) and made three pointers per game (9.6).