MORAGA — It's difficult to say where it was raining buckets harder, inside McKeon Pavilion or out.

Tough call, but the vote here is inside St. Mary's sardine can of a basketball pavilion, the one with the rims seemingly as wide as the Pacific Ocean on Saturday night.

As heavy as the downpour was that pummeled the St. Mary's campus most of the evening, the Gaels let loose with a deluge of sharpshooting from 3-point range and the free-throw line that was absolutely awesome to watch.

St. Mary's nailed a school-record 16

3-point baskets (out of just 27 tries, 59.3 percent) as well as 22 of 28 free-throw tries. You simply can't feel it much better than that over the course of a 40-minute game, and the end result of the Gaels' nylon splashfest was the school's biggest basketball victory in memory, 89-81 over 11th-ranked Gonzaga.

"We can play other styles to win, but we really work on the 3," confessed senior guard Paul Marigney, who made 7 of 11 from behind the arc. "And when they came out in a zone, my eyes lit up."

You have to go a ways back to see the last St. Mary's encounter this intense and this momentous, maybe all the way back to the unforgettable 103-101 overtime thriller the Gaels claimed over Loyola Marymount way back in 1991.

But that'91 St. Mary's team wasn't going anywhere — it finished just 13-17. This Gaels team already has 14 wins with its huge triumph over the perennial powers from Spokane, Wash., and seems poised for a lot more.

Someone in the standing-room-only crowd 3,500 even held up a sign midway through the game that read: "Regime Change.


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" That might be a tad premature, but there's no question that RandyBennett's program, now in its fourth season, may have taken a quantum leap in respect and recognition after ending Gonzaga's 17-game hex over the Gaels dating back to 1998. Gonzaga also saw its 17-game West Coast Conference winning streak snapped.

Undeniably hot stuff.

"It was big, really big," concurred Bennett. "We've done a lot of good things here, but we hadn't beaten Gonzaga, that was the deal. That can wear on you a little bit. This was the first time it felt fairly even ... they have good players, we have good players."

Bennett also noted a confidence against the Zags that he hadn't seen before, too.

"It was totally different before the game," he said. "I didn't detect any nervousness, they weren't overexcited. They were really calm."

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who stubbornly kept his team in a zone much of the night, didn't quite see the Gaels' effort the same way as he evaluated an uncanny St. Mary's first half that, at one point, had the Gaels shooting a ridiculous 9-for-11 from the beyond the line and just 3-for-10 inside it.

"They shot the ball incredibly well," Few said. "They were home and they were hot. But you live and die by the outside shot, and tonight they lived by it. Sixteen of 27 is phenomenal."

Translation: Just try to do that again when we meet again on Feb. 3 up north, fellas. No doubt, the Gaels may have to expand their game in the rematch, but you can't take anything away from this achievement, which also included some superior defensive play and a great 6-0 spurt that opened the second half and didn't include a single 3-pointer.

St. Mary's flat-out showed it wanted this game more during that stretch. After Frederick Adjiwanou opened the second-half scoring with a driving layup, the Gaels got two more quick hoops by pressuring the inbounds for quick steals by Jonathan Sanders and Marigney. That bumped a four-point lead to 10, and the upset victory was suddenly seriously in the making.

"I wish I could take credit for it, but it just happened," said Bennett. "Four points is nothing to them (the Bulldogs), so to break out like that was huge."

Said Marigney, "Coming out from halftime, we knew the first 4-5 minutes were important in setting the tone. So to do what we did, that was key."

St. Mary's expanded its lead to as much as 15, but as anticipated, Gonzaga made a furious run that cut it to 81-78, and got one shot to tie. But the Gaels, who played slowdown most of the final 10 minutes, were able to win the game at the line down the stretch, making nine of 10 in the final 1:06. 

"We had an answer every time we needed it, I think," Bennett said.

Even with Stanford's stunning win over Arizona on Saturday afternoon, St. Mary's may have firmly established itself as the best college basketball team in the Bay Area with this victory. The Gaels are 14-5 and 2-0 in the WCC, and the little house on the Moraga prairie is rocking like one would expect from a top-flight program in the making.

On that count, Few did give proper credit to the magnificent job Bennett has done with a program that was 2-27 and 0-14 in conference the year before he took over in 2001. Back then, Gonzaga wins over St. Mary's were as automatic as they came.

"Randy's a great coach and a great person," Few said. "He had been in the league a long time, and somebody finally gave him a chance. That was all he needed."

For a night, Bennett's program pulled even with the mighty Gonzaga. And while the shooting may have a bit flukish, St. Mary's quality effort wasn't. The Gaels were certifiably torrid Saturday night, but the program looks hot to stay.

Carl Steward can be reached at (510) 293-2451 or by e-mail at csteward@angnewspapers.com.