- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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DAYTON, Ohio -- Quick reaction to Saint Mary's 67-54 win over Middle Tennessee on Tuesday night:
Overview: It was fitting: While much of the nation's attention was turned to Robert Morris' thrilling buzzer-beater win over Kentucky, two of the nation's more overlooked tourney-worthy teams -- one from the West Coast Conference, the other from the Sun Belt -- met here in the UD Arena. With Twitter buzzing about the NIT (really, the NIT!), Middle Tennessee and Saint Mary's scrapped with a bid to the proper 64-team NCAA tournament field on the line.
And one of the nation's most underappreciated players simply wouldn't be denied.
As he has all season, Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova carried the Gaels to a victory. He finished with 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 from beyond the arc with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and nearly 40 minutes of conducting his teammates like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report."
Middle Tennessee was often up to the task, and was impressively athletic and lightning quick from end to end. But the Gaels' steady stream of offense was enough to get them past play-in stage -- or the "First Round," if you're feeling generous about the NCAA's odd naming conventions -- and through to a matchup with No. 6 seed Memphis Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Turning point: Despite Saint Mary's eventual tally, the Gaels struggled on offense in the first half, shooting just 9-of-25 from the field. Fortunately, Middle was even worse, hitting just 8 of 25 shots overall and just 2 of 8 from 3, and Saint Mary's took a 29-20 lead to the half.
The Blue Raiders came out in the second half with their favored 1-3-1 half-court trapping zone, but the Gaels were ready -- on Monday, Dellavedova included it in the very short list of things he knew about MTSU coming in -- and he mostly shredded it. A pair of 3s later (including one ice-cold standstill shot from the wing), Saint Mary's led 39-28.
That's when Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis abandoned the zone look, inserted guard Tweety Knight into the game, assigned Knight to Dellavedova alone, and told his players to hedge every ball screen to force Dellavedova to give up the ball. This worked, and as the rest of the Gaels missed shots or occasionally coughed it up, MTSU came roaring back into the game 41-38. It looked like a turning point; instead, it was the high-water line. Beau Levesque made a pair of free throws and a layup, Stephen Holt finished an interior bucket, Dellavedova found Mitchell Young with a sweet no-look pass that sent the entire Middle Tennessee defense in the wrong direction and he knocked down an open 3 to bring the lead to 52-42. The Gaels would cruise from there.
Key player: Of course, it would be foolish to consider Saint Mary's a one-man team. Dellavedova is the engine that makes the Gaels run, but Stephen Holt is an aggressive penetrator, offensive rebounder and the secondary ball handler when Randy Bennett moves Dellavedova off the ball. Levesque was crucial, too.
Key stat: The Gaels, thanks in large part to Dellavedova's 5-of-7 mark, made 8 of their 14 3-point field goal attempts Tuesday night.
What's next: Middle Tennessee ends another excellent season under Kermit Davis 28-6. The Gaels survive and advance, and will play Memphis in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Thursday.