LAS VEGAS -- Patty Mills' teammates felt his comeback was a stirring success before Saint Mary's even took the court at the West Coast Conference tournament.
Just seeing Mills in uniform in their hushed locker room before the game, simply knowing their Australian point guard had rushed back from a hand injury to keep the Gaels' NCAA tournament hopes alive -- it was more than enough inspiration to push Saint Mary's past Portland.
And now the Gaels will get the showdown with Gonzaga that everybody has been anticipating all season.
Mills scored 12 points in a gutsy return from a five-week absence, and Saint Mary's finally got rolling in the final minutes of a 71-61 victory over Portland on Sunday night.
Mills, the Gaels' sophomore star, hadn't played since breaking two bones in his hand Jan. 29. The rust was obvious in his 3-for-12 shooting and three turnovers, but his playmaking noticeably picked up in a turnover-free second half in Saint Mary's sixth consecutive victory.
"It took longer than I hoped to warm up, but that's OK, because it was a good warmup for tomorrow," Mills said. "There were times when I tried to baby it a bit, but once I got in the flow, it was all right. It was stiff to start out, but it felt good to be out there, especially with the boys again."
Diamon Simpson had 15 points and 14 rebounds, and Omar Samhan added 12 points and 13 rebounds for the second-seeded Gaels (25-5). Both veterans thought Mills' return finally made the team whole -- even if the Gaels needed about 33 minutes to take advantage of it.
"The adjustment is much harder without him than with him, so I'm glad we had him back," Samhan said.
"His leadership coming back, it helps us," said Simpson, who had a career-high six steals to become the Gaels' career leader in the category. "You could feel it in the locker room. Everybody was smiling and feeling good."
The Gaels advanced to Monday night's final against the top-seeded Zags, who routed Santa Clara.
Both clubs shot poorly in a tentative first half that ended 24-24, and neither team led by more than five points in a back-and-forth second half until Saint Mary's made an 11-2 run. The string included seven points from Carlin Hughes, Mills' fellow Aussie, who put the Gaels up 62-51 with a 3-pointer followed by a layup with 2:04 left.
Simpson added a breakaway dunk with 1:31 left to seal it. Wayne Hunter scored 13 points for the Gaels, and Hughes had 12.
Nik Raivio had 15 points and nine rebounds, and T.J. Campbell added 12 points for the Pilots (19-11), who routed Pepperdine on Saturday night to reach the semifinals. The young Pilots stayed with Saint Mary's throughout, but haven't won two games in the conference tournament since 1996.
"Give (Mills) credit. He drove right at us," Portland coach Eric Reveno said. "He did a good job of controlling the game. He makes them that much better. ... They were the better team tonight. I'd like to think we're on the same curve. Right now they're just further along it."
The Gaels were 18-1 with a 15-game winning streak when Mills, their leading scorer and playmaker, was injured during a game at Gonzaga. Saint Mary's lost that game and three of its next four, including an 18-point loss at Portland.
After snapping the skid with a home win over the Pilots on Feb. 14, Saint Mary's ran the table in its remaining conference games to keep alive its hopes of the first back-to-back NCAA tournament berths in school history.
Mills underwent surgery on his hand, but always hoped to get back for the chance to earn an automatic NCAA berth. The Australian Olympian made the all-league first team despite playing in just six WCC games.
He returned to practice with Saint Mary's on Monday, and the school dramatically announced his return Friday after scheduling an additional game against Eastern Washington next week to further prove Mills' fitness to the NCAA selection committee.
Mills started a bit tentatively when he entered the game as a substitute early in the first half. He finished the first half with 2-of-7 shooting, three turnovers, an airballed free throw and two offensive fouls.
But Mills also demonstrated his quickness midway through the first half when he split two defenders with a dribble, sliced into the lane and got called for a questionable charge.
Portland snapped a string of 10 consecutive non-winning seasons this year with coach Eric Reveno's eclectic roster featuring players from Germany, Japan and Canada complementing Raivio, the WCC's fourth-leading scorer. Saint Mary's barely slipped past the Pilots for the No. 3 seed with its late-season win streak.
Simpson added the career steals mark to his school records in rebounds and blocks.