St. Mary's 89-81 upset of 11th-ranked Gonzaga last Saturday was a much greater triumph for the school than the national headlines suggested.
It was the Gaels' first win over Gonzaga in 18 tries. It was their first victory over a ranked team since 1974. It produced the loudest, craziest environment that anyone could remember in little McKeon Pavilion. It was, says high scorer Paul Marigney (30 points), a fifth-year senior who scored seven of the Gaels' team-record 16 3-pointers against the Zags, "the best basketball experience of my life." And he has known a lot of bad ones. In 2000-2001, his freshman year, the Gaels went 2-27, a school record for futility.
"I remember losing game after game after game," says Marigney, an Oakland native. "I don't know what the streak was, but the main thing was we got beat by Arizona by 60 points. I think that set some kind of school record, too. I had never been beaten like that before in my life."
When Randy Bennett replaced coach Dave Bollwinkel a few months after that wretched season ended, the toughest task in front of him was not recruiting players to the beautiful campus in Moraga, Calif. It was convincing the players who were still there that they could win.
"They weren't bad talent-wise, they just didn't have the habits you have to have to win," said Bennett. "It's a mental thing. I had to get them to look at the glass as half full."
Of course, recruiting good players to a program that had had precious few moments in the sun -- the most recent being an appearance in the 1997 NCAA tournament with coach Ernie Kent and 7-foot-3 center Brad "Big Continent" Millard -- wasn't easy. The 40-something Bennett had spent 15 years as an assistant in the West Coast Conference, so he knew what a good WCC player looked like. "People will say, 'Oh, a mid-major conference, this guy can play for you,'" says Bennett. "To win the league you have to beat Gonzaga. So if you take these guys who are lower Division I players, you're never going to beat 'em."
Famous for his work ethic, his people skills and his joie de vivre -- he organizes team paintball outings in part because, he says, "I like to have fun, too" -- Bennett used everything in his arsenal to track down players who could get his program rolling. "When everyone else was zigging, we were zagging," he says. "We went foreign, we went J.C., we went where we could find guys who were good enough but just weren't getting recruited. So much of our recruiting has been through relationships, who our players know, who the coaches know as opposed to looking at Bob Gibbons' top 200. We are not going to do well in that. But through relationships we can find a guy who is not being recruited but is as good as a top 50 player."
Exhibit A is Daniel Kickert, a 6-10, 245-pound junior from Melbourne, Australia, who is scoring 14.5 points and pulling down 7.3 rebounds a game. A versatile big man with a sweet outside shot, Kickert was also recruited by Oregon and Oregon State. He settled on St. Mary's because one of his teammates from the National Institute of Sport, Adam Caporn, was already in Moraga. "We were fortunate to get him," says Bennett. "He was better than we should have been able to get at that time. "It helped that Kickert was taken with Bennett's personality. "Coach Bennett is a people person," says Kickert. "He's easy to get along with. Off the court, he can joke, he can understand everything from a player's point of view. He's like a coach and off the court he's like a buddy."
Exhibit B: E.J. Rowland, a 6-2 senior point guard from Salinas, Calif. Rowland had wanted to come to St. Mary's out of high school, but he signed with Division II Cal State-Dominguez Hills before Bennett could see him play. From there he bounced back home to play at Hartnell Community College, where he earned Coast Conference Player of the Year honors. "I saw E.J. in the state tournament, where a lot of people saw him, but still no one really recruited him, maybe because they didn't see him as a point guard," says Bennett. "We did. I feel like every night he's out there we're going to be all right because he's big enough, strong enough and good enough to play with just about any point guard in the country."
Through other connections, hard work and good fortune, Bennett also turned up exhibits C and D: Frederic Adjiwanou, a 6-8 senior forward from Ambilly, France, and Foothill Junior College who is the team's leading rebounder (7.4 per game) and third-leading scorer (10.8 ppg), and Reda Rhalimi, a 7-foot junior reserve center from Salé, Morocco, who was headed to Georgetown before he tore his ACL during his one season at Daytona Junior College. "He's not playing much now, but he'll be a good player for us," says Bennett.
Every one, it seems, has traveled a long way to create what promises to be a landmark season for St. Mary's -- perhaps none as far as Marigney, who has never left Moraga. After being on and off the team as a freshman, he tore his ACL near the end of his sophomore year. Bennett made Marigney sit out the next year "because he needed to grow up a little," says Bennett. "People would have taken him if he had wanted to transfer. He wouldn't leave! He wanted to stay. He's really loyal and that's what I love about him." Since then, Marigney has gotten married, had a child and become more focused as a player. Last year he blossomed, scoring 16 points a game and earning first-team All-WCC honors. After sitting out the first nine games of this season after being declared academically ineligible, he is leading the team in scoring (14.7 ppg) and free throw shooting (.821).
Going into the game against Gonzaga on Saturday, Marigney felt St. Mary's, which had already beaten Cal, BYU and UNLV this season, "had something to prove," he says. "I had been here for five years and I had never had a chance to beat Gonzaga. I was going to do whatever I had to do to get it done. After the game, people were jumping on my head. It was crazy. It's something I never want to forget."