Saint Mary's gets a March Madness cold shoulder playing in hometown of rival

Thu, Mar 21, 2024

Saint Mary's gets a March Madness cold shoulder playing in hometown of rival

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Whether it was dinner on Wednesday night or making a visit to an elementary school on Thursday morning, Bryce Drew and Grand Canyon is receiving what might seem like an oddly warm March Madness reception in the Pacific Northwest.

That's what happens when Grand Canyon's opponent is Saint Mary's, and the game is being played in the hometown of the Gaels' biggest rival, Gonzaga.

"We've definitely felt it. We went out to eat last night and people are saying, 'Beat Saint Mary's.' And we went to an elementary school today and we had the elementary kids as our players are walking in saying, 'Beat Saint Mary's,'" said Drew, Grand Canyon's fourth-year coach. "That rivalry is real out here."

What normally would be a mundane, neutral-site environment for an NCAA Tournament game may be a little more in favor of the underdog when the No. 5 seed Gaels face No. 12 seed Grand Canyon on Friday night.

There has been no love lost over the years between Gonzaga and Saint Mary's as the two have battled for dominance of the West Coast Conference. The Gaels took two of three games against the Zags this season, won the regular-season conference title and then beat Gonzaga in the WCC title game in Las Vegas.

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After the bracket was released Sunday and seeing that Saint Mary's would be playing in its hometown, some Gonzaga players suggested - perhaps in jest - that neutral fans showing up to watch the games in Spokane might want to consider wearing purple and throwing their support behind Grand Canyon.

"We love it," Saint Mary's Aidan Mahaney said. "That's all good. We're excited to go. We like playing on the road, so bring them on."

For his part, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said fans should be supporting the Gaels. But the natural animosity with the Zags, combined with the notoriety gained by Grand Canyon's student section, could make it a little more of a partisan crowd against the Gaels.

"I honestly think the WCC has a lot of good fan bases and will support each other. I know a lot of them aren't juiced that we are here, but at the end of the day you want to support your conference," Saint Mary's center Mitchell Saxen said.

This season has been an impressive rebound for Saint Mary's after the way it started. The Gaels started the year just 3-5 after losing to Boise State in early December. From there, Saint Mary's found its stride, winning 23 of its final 25 games.

And whether it becomes a partisan crowd in favor of the Antelopes or not, Saint Mary's has proven it doesn't mind a hostile environment. The Gaels were undefeated in true road games this season, including a win at Colorado State and beating Gonzaga in Spokane back in early February.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett thinks while it's probably cliche, the idea of "toughness travels" has resonated with his group.

"They like challenges. The boxes they were trying to check at the beginning of the year are the boxes they checked at the end of the year," Bennett said.


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