- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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DAYTON, Ohio -- Middle Tennessee knew it. Saint Mary's knew it, too. In a world of advanced statistics and granulated scouting reports, even the most rudimentary preparation could tell you a very obvious thing about the Gaels coming into Tuesday night's First Four matchup in Dayton: Matthew Dellavedova was off.
Typically a 38-percent shooter from beyond the arc, Dellavedova spent the final week of the Gaels' pre-Dance season clanging one long-range shot after another. Zero for seven against Santa Clara. One for seven against San Diego. Zero for four in another lopsided loss to rival Gonzaga. All told, he finished WCC competition a whopping 1-of-18 from 3-point range, and Saint Mary's finished WCC play with its most important offensive option wielding just a fraction of his considerable abilities.
On Tuesday night, playing for a spot in the NCAA's 64-team "second round," Dellavedova's long-range drought lasted exactly three minutes and 2 seconds.
The scoring drought was over. So too was Middle Tennessee's first foray into the NCAA tournament in 24 years.
By the final buzzer, Dellavedova had gone 5-of-7 from 3-point range and 7-of-14 from the field, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, leading the Gaels to a 67-54 win over the Blue Raiders. Now he's got a chance to knock off No. 6 seed Memphis on Thursday, when the tournament begins in earnest.
"The whole thing is, can he shoot it?" Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "You can just sit over there and watch him play. I know [Saint Mary's coach] Randy [Bennett] has got to love that. He just puts guys in different spots. He sees it as good as anybody.
"He's big, strong and he can still a run a team," Davis said. "But he hadn't made those plays from the perimeter. When he does that, he may be the best point guard in college basketball."
That may be a bit of hyperbole from a recently vanquished opposing coach, and Trey Burke may beg to differ, but the praise isn't that far off. Dellavedova, a beloved senior whose career has coincided with the program's first WCC regular-season titles (in 2011 and 2012) and tournament titles (in 2010 and 2012) since 1997 and its first Sweet 16 appearance (2010) since 1959. The Australian native and 2012 Olympian is the Gaels' all time leader in points, assists, games started, games played and free throw percentage.
And -- oh by the way -- 3-point shots. And 3-point makes.
"You just get too many shots up for them not to go in," Dellavedova said.
In other words, 1-of-18 was less a great disturbance in the Force than a minor fluctuation to be ignored; a selective piece of data that would regress eventually to the mean. Now that it has, Dellavedova and his teammates, who have spent the past two days in a whirlwind of last-minute travel arrangements, can focus on knocking off Memphis in Auburn Hills on Thursday.
There are some minor similarities between Middle Tennessee and Memphis, namely the athleticism at every position and the desire to score in transition, but Memphis is a bigger, better, NBA-talent-loaded version of the Blue Raiders, coming off a perfect 19-0 run through the Conference USA regular season and tournament.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner will no doubt keenly watch Davis' strategy for slowing Dellavedova in the second half. It included a trapping 1-3-1 zone and eventually switching to tight man-to-man defense and hard-hedged screens -- all during a stretch that saw the Blue Raiders close Saint Mary's second-half lead to just three. Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque combined for 31 points and 10 rebounds, which helped relieve the pressure in the rare moments when Dellavedova was hassled into an unfavorable pass. The undersized Gaels will have replicate that effort and then some against Memphis to avoid being overwhelmed by the Tigers' speed and size.
"With Memphis, it's pretty much the same game plan," Bennett said. "You have to take the transition away from them, to see if you can do that, which is the No. 1 thing we did tonight."
And having the same Dellavedova as Tuesday night -- with that game-changing shooting in the quiver next to all the other arrows -- won't hurt, either.
"We're not going to win games like this if Matt doesn't shoot it well," Bennett said. "Or at least shoot it decent."