Share Video

Link copied!

It might have required winning 12 games in a row and 17 of 18, but Saint Mary's is back in The Associated Press Top 25 at No. 18 heading into Thursday night's game against visiting Pepperdine in Moraga, Calif.

The Gaels (20-6, 11-0 West Coast Conference) opened the season at No. 23 but lost three games in a row in mid-November against Weber State, San Diego State and Xavier.

Many thought a return to the Top 25 was long overdue for the Gaels, who returned four of their top five starters from last season's team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said the Gaels are hungry to go further.

"They've seen what it looks like to play in the NCAA Tournament two years in a row, win a game," Bennett said. "All that stuff, I can't explain how valuable that is for a coach. These guys have done what it takes and seen what it looks like when you get there."

Before the Gaels can begin focusing on tournament play, they'd like to complete their regular-season conference title run.

Saint Mary's leads second-place San Francisco by two games in the WCC and Gonzaga by 2 1/2.

The Gaels will host the Dons on Tuesday and the Bulldogs in the regular-season finale on March 2.

"Saint Mary's is the same every year, right?" Gonzaga coach Mark Few said at preseason media day. "Very disciplined, very purposeful with what they do on offense and what they do on defense Just plug 'em in."

Aidan Mahaney leads the Gaels in scoring with an average of 14.0 points a game, followed by fellow guard Augustas Marciulionis (11.9), who has doubled his scoring average from a year ago (5.9).

Joshua Jefferson, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward from Las Vegas, also has taken a big leap from last season. He's averaging 10.2 points after finishing at 2.2 last season.

"They're pretty sharp guys, high-character guys," Bennett said of his team. "They can take that and right now they can use it. They get it. Their talk at this time of year is about doing the little things, don't waste days -- the things that truly matter."

Saint Mary's leads the nation in rebound margin (plus-11.7), allows the second-fewest points per game (57.7) and owns the fifth-lowest field-goal-percentage defense (38.6).

Pepperdine (10-16, 3-8) ended a six-game losing streak with a 72-63 win at Loyola Marymount on Saturday. That showed improvement for the Waves, who lost to the Lions on its home floor three weeks earlier.

Michael Ajayi is the player to watch for Pepperdine. The 6-foot-7 wing averages 17.2 points and 9.5 rebounds with 13 double-doubles for the season, including two in the past three games. He also shoots 45.5 percent from 3-point range.

Ajayi is projected to be a potential second-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, so he'll likely put on a show against Saint Mary's.

"He's been better sooner than we expected," Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar said.

--Field Level Media

Copyright 2024 STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.