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February 5, 2008MORAGA, Calif. ? Moments after the victory that kept alive hopes of a conference title, St. Mary's forward Ian O'Leary poked his head out of the Gaels' locker room door.
"Hey coach," O'Leary said to Randy Bennett. "What time are we practicing tomorrow?"
Bennett could only smirk as he walked toward his postgame press conference.
"We're not," he said. "Tell everyone they've got the day off."
Yes, instead of working out or slugging through conditioning drills, the Gaels are free this afternoon, and no one can say they didn't earn it. Gonzaga, too, for that matter.
Heck, by the time the final buzzer sounded in Monday's 89-85 heart-racer, even the fans were pooped.
"It was a great college basketball game," Zags coach Mark Few said. "Guys were making heroic plays and playing their hearts out."
St. Mary's victory wasn't complete until Micah Downs missed what would've been a game-tying three-pointer with about four seconds remaining in overtime. A free throw on the other end by Patrick Mills sealed the win for the Gaels, who are now tied for first place in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga and San Diego.
All three teams are 6-1.
"After we lost to San Diego last Monday, people started doubting how good we really were and wondering if our record was just a smoke screen," shooting guard Todd Golden said. "But we had faith in our team. We realized (San Diego) was a tough team and that we didn't play our best.
"We know how good we are. We know what we're capable of. When we put it together as a team we're pretty darn good."
That's especially the case when you compare this St. Mary's squad to ones of years past. Even though the Gaels have shown marked improvement since Bennett's arrival in 2001, not once have they been able to dethrone Gonzaga for the league title.
For the last four years, St. Mary's has finished either second or third behind the Zags, who own seven consecutive regular-season crowns. Entering Monday's game, the Gaels had won just two of their previous 24 games against Gonzaga.
"They're a tough out," Bennett said. "They're tough to beat. If you're ever going to win the league you have to beat them. All we did tonight was give ourselves a chance to hang in there. If we wouldn't have won tonight it would've been tough."
Frustrated as he was by his team's loss, Few knows that St. Mary's ascension is good for the West Coast Conference. He said he grows tired of the national pundits who fail to acknowledge the competitiveness and talent level of the league.
"It's good that they're getting national attention," Few said. "We've always had teams in this league that were better than their national perception. It's always been a source of frustration that national people think we need to be perfect every year in this league.
"It's an unfair assessment of our league and the players and the coaches, and it's an unfair burden that's been put on us."
Gonzaga certainly won't receive any criticism for losing to No. 23 St. Mary's, which appeared to have the game won when Mills stepped in front of an Austin Daye pass and turned it into a layup on the other end. Mills was fouled on the play, and his ensuing free throw gave the Gaels a 73-70 cushion with 23 seconds remaining.
The Zags, though, refused to fold and eventually forced overtime on Abdullahi Kuso's dunk with six seconds left.
"That's why you play basketball ? to come up against these challenges and see how you handle them," said Mills, who scored five of his 23 points in the extra period.
A foul shot by Tron Smith put the Gaels ahead 88-85 with 38 seconds remaining. Gonzaga ran a nice play on the other end and got a clean look when Downs squared up for a three-pointer from the top of the key. But Downs' shot was off the mark. St. Mary's rebounded and clinched the victory on a free throw by Mills with three ticks left.
"We haven't played in a lot of close games," Bennett said. "To win one of these will give us confidence the next time we're in this situation."
Neither team led by more than seven points in a game that featured 12 lead changes and eight ties. Eleven NBA scouts were in attendance ? mainly to watch Daye, the Gonzaga freshman who's expected to be a lottery pick whenever he decides to enter the draft.
Daye finished with 15 points before fouling out, but it was point guard Jeremy Pargo who commanded the most attention by scoring 27 points on 11 of 17 shooting.
Golden made all six of his three-point attempts in a 19-point effort for St. Mary's. Thirteen of Mills' 23 points came from the foul line. The Gaels attempted 42 free throws compared to 18 by Gonzaga. The stat seemed to irritate Few.
"You guys can read the stats," he said. "There's only one stat that really jumps out. But the (main) deal is that it was a great college basketball game. Somebody had to lose and somebody had to win.
"Their guys stepped up and made some plays to win, but we executed perfectly. I'm so proud of our guys. We ran an end-of-game situation, got a great shot and it didn't go in. But it was perfect execution. Our guys did great."
So, too, did the players from St. Mary's, who hope Monday's victory was more of a trend than an aberration.
"This (signifies) a change for the program," Golden said. "We're a very good team. We think that we can compete to win this league. We think we have a shot to win this league.
"A home game against a good team ? we think we need to win this game every time."
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.