Shaky Saint Mary’s earns date in finals

The West Coast Conference has the marquee matchup it wanted for its tournament title game. But it didn’t come without anxious moments Sunday.

Saint Mary’s will face top-seeded Gonzaga at 6 p.m. today at the Orleans Arena after the second-seeded Gaels struggled to top Portland, 71-61.

Gaels coach Randy Bennett was concerned about his team’s on-the-floor chemistry with the return of star guard Patrick Mills, who had missed five weeks with a broken right hand.

The rust on Mills’ game was evident as the long stretch of inactivity had the Saint Mary’s sophomore off his game and his teammates out of sync.

Yet in the end, Mills and the Gaels (25-5) found themselves on the same page. He had 12 points and four assists.

"It took longer than I had hoped to warm up, but it felt good to be back," Mills said. "There were times where I tried to baby it a little bit. But I think it just goes back to confidence."

Bennett said he knew Mills wouldn’t be razor-sharp in his return. "Pat played about the way I thought he would," Bennett said. "Bringing him back, we had to play through that I little bit. But I knew that."

Mills, who was averaging 18.7 points before breaking his hand Jan. 29, had six points on 2-for-7 shooting in 15 first-half minutes off the bench.

"I thought about it," Bennett said of starting Mills. "But I wanted it to be as smooth a transition as possible, and he said to me not to start him. But I expect you’ll see him back in the starting lineup very soon."

Like tonight?

"Maybe," Bennett said with a smile.

Trailing 42-40 with 11:21 to play, Saint Mary’s outscored Portland (19-11) 22-9 over a 7:40 stretch to go up 62-51. Mills didn’t score a point during the run, even though he was on the floor the entire time. But the chemistry the other four players on the floor with him had with each other compensated for Mills’ lack of scoring.

Mills figures to be sharper tonight against Gonzaga, the team Saint Mary’s was facing when Mills broke his hand.

The Gaels will be gunning for their first WCC tournament title since 1997. More important, they can take the guesswork out of the equation as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned by beating Gonzaga, which had two two-point wins over Saint Mary’s.

"If you’re a competitor, you want to play the best," said Omar Samhan, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds. "We had two very close games with Gonzaga, so we’re looking forward to playing them. It should be a great championship game."

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913.

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